Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cockburn, Alexander James Edmund
COCKBURN, Sir ALEXANDER JAMES EDMUND (1802–1880), lord chief justice of England, was of an ancient Scotch family. A knight of the name fell at Bannockburn, and his grandson Alexander was a knight and keeper of the great seal of Scotland from 1389 to 1396. In 1595 Sir William Cockburn received a grant of the land and barony of Langton in the county of Berwick, and his son William was created a baronet of Nova Scotia in 1627. Sir James (1729-1804), sixth baronet, had five sons. The three eldest succeeded in turn to the baronetcy. Sir James, seventh baronet (1771-1852), was a major-general, secretary of state in 1806, and governor of the Bermudas in 1811; the eighth, Sir George (1772-1853) [q. v.], was an admiral; the ninth, Sir William (1773-1858), was dean of York. Alexander, father of the chief justice, was younger brother of the three baronets, and fourth son of the sixth baronet, by his second wife, a niece of George, lord Lyttelton. He was British envoy extraordinary and minister plenipoten- tiary to the state of Columbia. He married Yolande, daughter of the Vicomte de Vignier. His only son, Alexander James Edmund, was born on 24 Dec. 1802. He was privately educated, both at home and abroad. His mother being a foreigner, both of his sisters marrying Italians, and being himself brought up on the continent, he became a fluent linguist, and was an admirable scholar in French, German, Spanish, and Italian. In 1822 he entered at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was a contemporary of the first Lord Lytton. He was distinguished in Latin prose, and in his second year won the prizes for English and Latin exercises. He subsequently gained the English essay prize, and was a prominent speaker in debating societies. In 1825 he became a fellow commoner. In 1829 he took the degree of bachelor of civil law in the first class, and was elected to a fellowship, which he long continued to hold. He was an honorary fellow till his death. He was a candidate for the mastership of Trinity Hall in 1852, when Dr. Geldart was elected, and on Geldart's death in 1877 would have been willing, if he had been elected, to accept the office. Sir Henry Maine, however, was elected. A portrait of Cockburn was presented to the college in June 1876 (L. Stephen, Life of Fawcett, pp. 113, 132). He had entered at the Middle Temple in 1825, and on 6 Feb. 1829 was called to the bar. Though well known for his cleverness and the associate of Dalling and Bulwer, he was at this time far from industrious. There was then a greater opportunity of establishing a reputation at sessions than now, and Cockburn joined the western circuit and the Devon sessions, which had then a strong bar. It was led by Follett. Here he soon attained a good practice, but he was so little employed in London that he was with difficulty induced to keep his chambers open there at all. In 1832, in collaboration with Mr. Howe of the western circuit, afterwards knight and recorder of Plymouth, he published a volume of reports of election cases decided in election committees of the House of Commons. The reports, which were of an admirable kind, were found at that moment, just after the reform of 1832, of such importance that they were issued in parts, but not more than one volume was published in all. This brought him a considerable quantity of election petition practice. He received on 26 March 1833 his first parliamentary brief for the sitting members for Coventry, Henry Lytton Bulwer and Edward Ellice, and, led by Sir William Follett, he also appeared in the Lincoln and Dover petitions for the sitting members. All three seats were successfully defended. On 18 July 1834 he was appointed a member of the commission of inquiry into the state of corporations in England and Wales, and with Messrs. Whitcombe and Rushton he was allotted to report upon the northern midland towns, and Leicester, Warwick, and Nottingham. The reports on Bridgenorth, Derby, Newark, Newcastle-under-Lyne, Retford, Stafford, Shrewsbury, and Wenlock, which are the joint work of Cockburn and Rushton, are very full and clear. Those on Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham, and Warwick, which are his and Whitcombe's, and Bewdley, Kidderminster, Newport, Sutton Coldfield, Tamworth, and Walsall, which are his alone, though very impartial, are not so full as those executed with Rushton. The mode in which his work as a commissioner was performed brought him a client in the person of Mr. Joseph Parkes, the chief parliamentary agent of the whig party. In 1835 and 1838 he appeared in election petitions. In 1838 he appeared for the first time as leading counsel in the Taunton election petition. At the same time he was diligent in his attention to his circuit, became recorder of Southampton, and in 1841 was made a queen's counsel by Lord Cottenham. Though of a very distinguished courtesy at all times, he was often a little testy in his advocacy. He appeared to the best advantage when conducting a defence, and in 1843, when Sir William Follett, the solicitor-general, appeared for the crown, was leading counsel for McNaughten, who shot Mr. Drummond, Sir Robert Peel's secretary, and, in spite of the discredit cast on the plea by its employment in the case of Oxford, procured his acquittal on the ground of insanity. His speech, which was made on a Saturday, was reported at the length of ten columns on the following Monday, one reporter only being employed. It occupied the largest space which had till then been supplied by a single hand to one day's newspaper. In the same year he appeared with Sir Cresswell Cresswell against Campbell, the attorney-general, Wilde, the solicitor-general, Dundee, and Phillimore, for his uncle, Dr. Cockburn, the dean of York, in a proceeding against the archbishop of York for illegally depriving the dean by his commissary, Dr. Phillimore, upon a charge of simony. After a three days' argument in the queen's bench the rule for prohibition against the archbishop was made absolute. In 1844 he appeared for its owners in the remarkable case about the racehorse Running Rein. In this case he made a fierce attack on Lord George Bentinck, who had personally prepared all the details of the case for the other side, the owners of Orlando. Lord George wrote to him expostulating and begging that he might be sworn and have an opportunity of clearing himself, whereupon a day or two afterwards Cockburn withdrew all imputations in court. In 1847 he became a candidate as a liberal reformer for Southampton with Mr. Wilcox. He was elected without a contest, and soon gained the ear of the House of Commons by short speeches on topics of legal reform. The opportunity for distinction soon came. In 1850 the House of Lords passed a vote of censure on the government of Lord John Russell for Lord Palmerston's conduct of the 'Pacifico' dispute with Greece. In the House of Commons Roebuck, member for Sheffield, moved a counter vote of confidence (24 June), and a close division was expected, on which hung the fate of the ministry. Lord Palmerston at first applied to Mr. Crowder, afterwards a justice of the common pleas, to state the points of law for him, and on his refusal committed the task to Cockburn. On the night of 28 June, at the close of the fourth night's debate, Cockburn rose to reply to a long and damaging speech by Mr. Gladstone, and moved the adjournment. He made a fine speech, full of eloquence and sarcasm, and developing the legal argument showed that no redress was obtainable by Don Pacifico in the Greek courts. He proceeded to a general vindication of Lord Palmerston's policy in Naples and Lombardy, and so successfully that, as was said by Sir Robert Peel, who spoke next and for the last time, 'one-half of the treasury benches were left empty, while honourable members ran one after another, tumbling over each other in their haste, to shake hands with the honourable and learned member.' He proceeded to push his success. In the next great debate, not many hours later, he rose and denounced the cruelties practised by the Austrian government upon the Magyar rebels. Accordingly on 12 July he was knighted and made solicitor-general, and when Sir John Romilly was appointed master of the rolls early in 1851 Cockburn succeeded him as attorney-general. He resigned with the rest of the ministry in February 1852, resumed office with them in December, and continued to be Lord Palmerston's attorney-general until November 1856. Meantime he was in the full tide of a prosperous professional career. He conducted the prosecution on behalf of the customs department against the dock companies, and fought before a parliamentary committee the cause of the narrow gauge against Austin and Thesiger, who appeared for the broad gauge system. In June 1852 he led for the defence in Dr. Achilli's libel action against Dr. Newman, which was tried before Lord-chief-justice Campbell. Newman, in his ' Letters on the Present Position of the Catholics in England,' had spoken of Achilli, who had joined the reformed church, as 'a profligate under a cowl' and ' a scandalous friar.' The defence was a plea that the libel was true, and the evidence in support of this plea lasted for four days. In the end a verdict was given for the plaintiff, and the defendant having obtained a rule for a new trial the litigation was brought to an end. Others of his causes celebres were a suit of the Duke of Manchester's at Kingston ; an issue directed by Vice-chancellor Page Wood to be tried at Liverpool in 1855, as to the validity of the will of Mr. R. Gregg Hopwood, which, as executor, the Earl of Sefton propounded ; the great Swynfen will case, in which Mrs. Swynfen, the plaintiff, after repudiating a settlement effected on the first trial by her counsel, Sir F. Thesiger, obtained a new trial, which she won, chiefly through the exertions of Mr. Charles Rann Kennedy [q. v.], her counsel. Cockburn also led the prosecution of William Palmer in the Rugeley poisoning case with Edwin James, Q.C., Bodkin, Welsby, and Huddleston. For the defence were Serjeant Shee, Grove, Q.C., Gray, and Kenealy. The case lasted twelve days at the central criminal court, and turned exclusively upon circumstantial evidence. Though far from being the strongest case, Cockburn elected to have Palmer tried on the indictment in Cook's case, and at the end of the case replied without a single note. Chiefly by his advocacy Palmer was convicted and hanged on 14 June 1856. So thorough was Cockburn in his work that in getting up the evidence he had experimented with and studied poisons to a considerable degree. In 1853 he was elected treasurer of the Middle Temple, and in 1854 was appointed recorder of Bristol. During the Crimean war he proved himself a very efficient debater, and his finished advocacy, aided by his powerful and melodious voice, dignified bearing, and keen humour, made him unrivalled at the bar. At length in 1856, after the death of Sir John Jervis on 2 Nov., Cockburn, though loth to abandon his huge professional income, succeeded him as chief justice of the common pleas, and was sworn of the privy council. ' Sir Alexander Cockburn,' writes Lord Campbell in his journal (Hardcastle, Life of Lord Campbell, ii. 347), ' has frequently declared that he would not acceptany judicial appointment, that he would prefer a political office, and that he would rather remain at the bar without office than become a judge.' His next entry continues : 'As I suspected, Cockburn's abjuration of the bench turns out to be only nolo episcopari. . . . He is a man of great intellectual ability; he is capable of keen, though not as yet of continuous application ; he is ambitious of fame, and he has very courteous manners both in public and in private.' When Lord Palmerston came into power in 1859, Cockburn was ambitious to receive the great seal, but Lord Campbell becoming chancellor, he succeeded him on 24 June 1859 as lord chief justice of England. In the previous year, upon the death of the dean of York, he had succeeded to the baronetcy. He now, as afterwards on his return from the Geneva arbitration, declined a peerage ; but on the latter occasion accepted the grand cross of the Bath.
As an advocate Cockburn's knowledge of the law was not profound ; before his death he certainly was a good lawyer. He is said to have acquired his knowledge by sitting on the bench with Mr. Justice Blackburn. In style, however, his charges and considered judgments were masterpieces, and his summing up in the Matlock will case was especially eloquent. He preferred to take an adjournment in order to obtain time to throw his judgments into good form. It was his great pleasure to try all the most notorious cases himself. Thus the motion for a criminal information made by the Earl of Cardigan in the case of Reg. v. Calthorpe in order to vindicate his character, the action in 1865 in which Mrs. Ryves sought to prove that she was of the blood royal, the Jamaica rebellion case in 1867, the Roman catholic convent scandal of Saurin v. Starr (an action by a nun against the superior of her convent for conspiracy), the prosecution of those concerned in the Clerkenwell explosions in 1867, the second Tichborne trial in 1873, the Wainwright murder in 1875, and the Franconia collision case (Reg. v. Keyes) in 1876 all came before him. His charge to the grand jury at the central criminal court on the indictment against Brigadier-general Nelson and Lieutenant Brand for their conduct on Gordon's trial during the Jamaica rebellion occupied six hours in delivery, and was a masterly disquisition upon the whole field of martial law. Subsequently it was published with notes by Mr. Frederick Cockburn. The jury threw out the bill. The trial at bar of Orton or Castro in the court of queen's bench for perjury committed during the trial of the action of ejectment, Tichborne v. Lushington, took place before the lord chief justice, Mr. Justice Mellor, and Mr. Justice Lush. Sir John (now Lord) Coleridge and (the present Sir Henry) Hawkins, Q.C., were for the crown, and Dr. Kenealy defended the prisoner. During the trial, which lasted 188 days—the longest except that of Warren Hastings upon record—Dr. Kenealy, who had owed much to Cockburn's patronage, behaved to the court in the most unprofessional manner, and after the trial libelled the chief justice in his paper, the 'Englishman.' During the whole trial Cockburn assiduously perused his notes of the day night by night, and his charge to the jury occupied eighteen days in delivery, and was afterwards published in 1874 in two volumes of eight hundred pages each with his own corrections. On 23 April 1875 Dr. Kenealy, having been elected for the borough of Stoke, moved for a royal commission to inquire into the conduct of the Tichborne trial, and during the debate Mr. Disraeli, the prime minister, said of Cockburn : ' He is a man of transcendent abilities ; his eloquence is remembered in this house, and when he left it to ascend the highest tribunal almost within the realm, he sustained the reputation which he had attained here and in the courts of his country with learning and majesty' (Hansard, vol. ccxxiii. col. 1598). Shortly after this trial the freedom of the city of London was conferred on the chief justice.
At the same time Cockburn played a conspicuous part in public life. The same overflowing energy which led him to elaborate his judgments perpetually precipitated him into pamphlet controversy or stray publications. He published in 1869 a pamphlet on 'Nationality,' in which he discussed the report of the Nationalisation Commission. He published also a letter of remonstrance to the lord chancellor upon the judges being required to try election petitions ; an attack on the then projected Judicature Act, under the title of 'Our Judicial System,' being a letter to Lord-chancellor Hatherly, dated 4 May 1870 ; a remonstrance on Sir Robert Collier's appointment to the judicial committee of the privy council in 1871 ; and a letter, dated 10 Dec. 1878, to Lord Penzance, in reply to the latter's animadversion in his judgment in the case of Combe v. Edwards upon the conduct of the chief justice and Mr. Justice Mellor in issuing a prohibition against his proceedings as ecclesiastical judge in the case of Martin v. Mackonochie.
But his most conspicuous public appearance consisted in representing the British Government under the treaty of Washington at the Alabama arbitration held at Geneva. For this duty his knowledge of international law, his perfect mastery of French, and his courtly demeanour peculiarly fitted him. The American claims were excessive and not very fairly urged, and as he dissented from the award, he explained his reasons in an elaborate report, dated 14 Sept. 1872, and presented to parliament with the award in 1873. He held the British government liable for the depredations of the Alabama, though on grounds different from those of the other arbitrators, but considered that in the case of the Florida want of due diligence was not sufficiently proved, and that in the case of the Shenandoah no blame attached to the British government at all. The English translation of the Act of Decision was prepared by him, with Mr. C. F. Adams, and after the decision of the majority had been read and signed, he presented his reason for dissenting. In a letter dated 4 Oct. 1872 to Lord Granville, expressing his gratitude for the queen's acknowledgment of his services, he said : 'When I undertook the office of arbitrator I believed that the only question would be whether her majesty's government had by any oversight or omission failed to fulfil the obligation admitted by the treaty of Washington to have been binding on it. When I found that, with a view to a favourable decision on this question, charges involving the honour and good faith of the queen's government and the country were put forward in the pleadings of the United States, and saw plainly that these charges were unfounded and unjust, I thought it my duty not to pass them over in silence.' In 1877 and 1878 he was chairman of the Cambridge University Commission, and he received at various times the degrees of D.C.L. and LL.D. In the summer of 1878, at the Exeter assizes, his health began to fail, and signs appeared of fatty degeneration of the heart. He took relaxation by means of a voyage in his yacht, the Zouave, an amusement of which he was very fond, and, having spent the autumn according to his custom at Spa, returned to his duty. In the summer of 1880 he went the south-eastern circuit, and again visited Spa in the autumn. On 18 and 19 Nov. he sat to try special jury causes, on the 20th presided with all his usual brilliancy in the court of crown cases reserved, walked home to his house, 40 Hertford Street, Mayfair, dined, was seized with an attack of angina pectoris near midnight, and died in fifteen minutes, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. He was buried in his family vault at Kensal Green, attended by a great number of the bench and the bar, all the courts adjourning for the day. At the time of his death he had material in hand, very carefully prepared, for a work on the authorship of the 'Letters of Junius,' which was to have been published in the 'Academy,' and was writing a series of articles on the 'History of the Chase' in the 'Nineteenth Century.' He was at work upon these so late as the afternoon of the day on which he died. In private life he was very fond of society, was a good musician, an admirable host and raconteur, and an equally good listener. He was an intimate friend of Dickens, and a constant attendant at his readings in London. To him Dickens, it is said, used to direct all the best points in each piece (Dolby, Dickens as I knew him, p. 28). He was not a great judge like Parke or St. Leonard's, or an authority on mercantile usage like Willes; he had not a retentive legal memory, and got up his law very often for the occasion ; but his grasp of facts made him an admirable judge at nisi prius, and although he sat for twenty-four years on the bench he never lost interest in the cases before him. His best judgments are those in the Franconia case and in the newspaper libel case Campbell v. Spottiswoode, and the law of libel as now laid down is largely bis creation. He was a small man, but carried himself so well that he never looked small. Though always kind and courteous he was never garrulous or familiar in court, but stood up for the dignity of his office and took a wide view of the law of contempt of court. He entertained a particular prejudice against the Judicature Act, and restricted its operation as much as possible. The Cockburn baronetcy became extinct on his death.
[Law Magazine, 1851, p. 193, and 4th series, vi. 191 ; Solicitors' Journal, 27 Nov. 1880; Times, 22 Nov. 1880; Law Times, lxx. 68-88; Academy, 27 Nov. 1880, p. 383; Ballantine's Experiences of a Barrister, ii. 30, 113; Ashley's Life of Palmerston, i. 224; Greville Memoirs, 2nd series, ii. 251, iii. 346.]