Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Follett, William Webb

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1150062Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 19 — Follett, William Webb1889John Andrew Hamilton

FOLLETT, Sir WILLIAM WEBB (1798–1845), attorney-general, second and eldest surviving son of Benjamin Follett, a timber merchant, of Topsham, near Exeter, and formerly a captain in the 13th regiment of foot, by his wife, a daughter of John Webb of Kinsale, was born 2 Dec. 1798. At first his health was very feeble, but in 1809 he was put to school under Dr. Lemprière at Exeter grammar school, and in 1810 to Mr. Hutchinson's school at Heavitree, near Exeter, whence he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, and took a B.A. ægrotat degree in 1818 and an M.A. in 1830. In 1836 he was appointed counsel to the university. In Michaelmas term 1814 he joined the Inner Temple, and read in the chambers of Robert Bayly and Godfrey Sykes. He became a special pleader in 1821, but early in 1824 was obliged from illness, the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs, to give up work for some months. In Trinity term, however, of the same year he was called to the bar, and joined the western circuit in the following summer. His first reported case is Moore v. Stockwell, 6 Barnwell and Cresswell, p. 76, in Michaelmas term 1826. From the time he came to London he was a tory, and lived very much with John Wilson Croker [q. v.], though at Cambridge his opinions are said to have been whig. He was a cousin of Mrs. Croker, and eventually married Croker's ward, Jane Mary, eldest daughter of Sir Ambrose Hardinge Giffard, chief justice of Ceylon, in October 1830, by whom he had five sons and two daughters. From the first, except for a few early appearances at sessions, his professional career was one unbroken success, and yet it provoked neither envy nor detraction. The years 1831–3 brought him an election petition practice of unprecedented magnitude. In 1832 he contested Exeter unsuccessfully against Buller and Divett, but in 1835 was returned for it, heading the poll with 1,425 votes. He succeeded well in the House of Commons, but for the most part contented himself with speaking on legal and not on general topics. He became a king's counsel in Michaelmas term 1834, and was solicitor-general in Sir Robert Peel's administration from November 1834 to April 1835, and was also knighted. His first speech was on 31 March 1835 upon Lord John Russell's Irish church motion. On 23 June of the same year he moved an amendment to clause 9 of the Government Corporation Bill for the purpose of preserving the rights of freemen to the parliamentary franchise, and was only defeated by 278 to 232. When, later in the year, the House of Lords, on Lyndhurst's advice and against Peel's, recast the bill, and so produced a conflict between the two houses, the high tories formed plans for dispensing with Peel and coming in with Lyndhurst as prime minister, and Follett and Praed to lead the commons. In 1837 he was re-elected at Exeter without a contest, and in 1841 headed the poll with 1,302 votes. In Peel's second administration in the same year he became again solicitor-general, and in April 1844, when Pollock became chief baron, Follett succeeded him as attorney-general, and, his re-election being opposed, again won with 1,293 votes. His health, however, failed, and symptoms of paralysis appeared in his lower limbs. When he addressed the House of Lords for the crown on O'Connell's appeal, he was obliged to do so sitting on a high chair. He spent some months on the continent, but returning home in March 1845, soon fell ill again, and for some months before his death had given up all hope of recovery. He died 28 June 1845 at Cumberland Terrace, Regent's Park, and was buried in the south-eastern vault of the Temple Church on 4 July. He was universally popular and universally regretted. ‘In every qualification of intellect and grace of manner,’ writes Lord Hatherley (Life, i. 270), ‘he was as nearly perfect as man can be.’ His best-known cases at the bar were his defence of Lord Cardigan for his duel with Captain Tuckett, in which he obtained an acquittal on technical grounds, and the action of Norton against Lord Melbourne, in which he appeared for the plaintiff. With little knowledge of classical and modern languages and literatures, with much general information, there was a complete absence of rhetoric or fire, but he was unrivalled for lucidity, dexterity, promptitude, and persuasiveness. He was unfortunately parsimonious and too eager to accumulate a fortune, and fell a victim to his application to professional work. In person he was tall and slim, with a fine brow, large mouth, and grey eyes. His voice was mellow and full, and his gestures, though limited, were very graceful. He has left behind him the reputation of having been the greatest advocate of the century. His personal property was sworn at 160,000l. There is a statue of him in Westminster Abbey, and a portrait by F. R. Say, which has been engraved by G. R. Ward. One speech of his on the second reading of the Dissenters' Chapels Bill, 6 June 1844, has been published.

[Times, 30 June 1845; Hansard's Parliamentary Debates; Croker Papers, ii. 367; Duke of Buckingham's Courts and Cabinets, ii. 199; McCullagh Torrens's Melbourne, ii. 191; Raikes's Journal, ii. 77; Ballantyne's Experiences, i. 125; Blackwood's Mag. lix. 1; Dublin Univ. Mag. xx. 117; Fraser's Mag. xxxii. 165; Gent. Mag. 1845.]

J. A. H.