Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Forsyth, William (1812-1899)

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FORSYTH, WILLIAM (1812–1899), man of letters, eldest son of Thomas Forsyth of Birkenhead by his wife Jane Campbell (Hamilton), was born on 25 Oct. 1812 at Greenock, where his parents were then residing. After education at Sherborne school, he was on 9 Dec. 1829 entered as a pensioner at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was admitted scholar 4 May 1832, minor fellow 2 Oct. 1835, major fellow 4 July 1837. He took his B.A. degree in 1834, being third senior optime, third in the first class of the classical tripos, and second chancellor's medallist, and he proceeded M.A. in 1837. He became a student at the Inner Temple on 10 April 1834, was called to the bar on 22 Nov. 1839, and went the Midland circuit, where he had considerable success as an advocate. In 1841 he published his first legal treatise, 'On the Law of Composition with Creditors.' This was succeeded by 'The Law relating to Simony' (1844), 'The Law relating to the Custody of Infants' (1850), 'Fides Laici,' an essay (1850), a careful and trustworthy study of 'The History of Trial by Jury,' 1852 (quoted with high commendation in Lieber's 'Civil Liberty and Self-Government,' 1856), and, many years later, by 'Cases and Opinions on Constitutional Law … with Notes' (1869). In 1859 Forsyth was appointed standing counsel to the secretary of state for India, and this appointment he held until 1872. He was also a member of the council of legal education from 1860. His interest in politics led him to stand for parliament, and he was elected for the borough of Cambridge in the conservative interest in July 1865. But he was unseated on petition on the ground that the office of standing counsel to the secretary of state for India was one of profit under the crown, and disqualified him from sitting in parliament. After he had relinquished this office he was an unsuccessful candidate for the representation of Bath in 1873; but he was returned for Marylebone at the general election of 1874, and held the seat until 1880. Though a clear and forcible speaker, his public utterances in the House of Commons were not frequent. High expectations were formed of him when he first entered parliament, but they were never realised. Men of far less knowledge and experience, but with a greater command over the house, easily passed him by in the race. There was, in fact, much more of the student and the fellow of Trinity about Forsyth than of the politician or the parliamentary hand. His claims as a man of letters were recognised not only by his appointment as editor of the 'Annual Register' (1842-68), but by his being urged repeatedly to write both for the 'Edinburgh' and 'Quarterly' Reviews. To the former he contributed essays on 'Brougham' and 'Criminal Procedure; 'to the latter 'The Kingdom of Italy' (1861), and a cordial review of Foss's 'Judges of England' (1866); while to 'Fraser's' he sent his interesting 'Literary Style.' Sixteen of his articles were reprinted in 'Essays Critical and Narrative' (1874). In 1849 Forsyth dedicated to Lord Denman his scholarly and original sketch of the office and functions of an advocate entitled 'Hortensius,' an historical survey of the bar from the earliest times, of which a second edition was called for in 1874. The book laid the foundation of a friendship with Lord Brougham, specimens of whose private letters to 'Hortensius,' as he called Forsyth, were privately printed by the latter in 1872. 'Hortensius' was followed by the 'History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, from the Letters and Journals of the late Sir Hudson Lowe' (3 vols. 1853; French translation, 1855), in which Forsyth concludes that 'by mere force of facts he had proved that neither the British government nor Lowe were in fault as regards the treatment of Napoleon at St. Helena.' Reverting to his earlier course of study, he dedicated to Brougham in 1863 his acceptable 'Life of Marcus Tullius Cicero' (London, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1807), a conscientious attempt to steer between the eulogy of Conyers Middleton and the dark colours supplied by the 'portentous erudition of Drumann and Mommsen.' The results of another branch of study appeared in 1871, when Forsyth published his agreeable volume on 'Novels and Novelists of the Eighteenth Century,' as illustrating the manners and morals of the period. The following year saw the publication of his dramatic essay, 'Hannibal in Italy,' an historical drama in verse, and of his 'History of Ancient Manuscripts,' being the substance of a lecture before the benchers of the Inner Temple. In 1876 he published some travel papers under the title 'The Slavonic Provinces south of the Danube.'

Forsyth, who spent several months each year in foreign travel, took a philanthropic interest in prison life at home and abroad, visiting the prisons of France, Italy, Russia, the United States, and Turkey. In 1873 he made an inspection of prison life at Portland, and gave the results of his investigations in an article in 'Good Words' (October 1873). He appeared as a lecturer on the platforms of many literary institutions in England, and several of his lectures were printed. Forsyth became a Q.C. on 6 July 1857, and a bencher of the Inner Temple on 24 Nov. in the same year. He was appointed treasurer of his inn in 1872. He was commissary of Cambridge University (1868), and was made an LL.D. by the university of Edinburgh in 1871. He died at his residence, 61 Rutland Gate, 'after forty-eight hours' illness,' on 26 Dec. 1899. Dying at the great age of 87, he had outlived (says the Times) not only nearly all his contemporaries, but the reputation which his talent and industry had built up.' He was one of the patriarchs of the Athenæum Club, being elected in 1844.

Forsyth was twice married: first, on 23 Feb. 1843, to Mary, youngest daughter of George Lyall, M.P., of Findon, Surrey (she died on 9 March 1864); secondly, on 3 July 1866, to Georgiana Charlotte, daughter of Thomas Hall Plumer, and granddaughter of Sir Thomas Plumer [q. v.]

[Luard's Graduati Cantabr.; Foster's Men at the Bar; Times, 27 Dec. 1899; Daily News, 27 Dec. 1899; Annual Register, 1899, p. [186]; Macvey Napier's Correspondence, 1879; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Smiles's A Publisher and his Friends, 1891; Forsyth's Works.]

T. S.