Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Watson, William (1827-1899)

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WATSON, WILLIAM, Lord Watson (1827–1899), judge, son of the Rev. Thomas Watson, minister in the church of Scotland, by Eleonora, daughter of David McHaffie, was born at the Manse, Covington, Lanarkshire, on 25 Aug. 1827. He was educated at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, the latter of which conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. in 1876. He was admitted advocate in 1851, but nearly a decade elapsed before he entered upon his career, and then he owed his introduction to practice to the illness of a friend who recommended him as a substitute. In July 1865 he appeared for the defence in the cause ctlebre of Dr. Edward Pritchard [q. v.], the poisoner. Thenceforth his practice grew steadily, though slowly, until in 1874 it was sufficient to warrant Disraeli in rewarding his conservatism, then altogether exceptional at the Scottish bar, with the office of solicitor-general for Scotland (21 July). In the following year he was elected dean of the faculty of advocates, and in 1876 he succeeded Edward Strathearn Gordon [q. v.] in the office of lord advocate and the representation of the universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen. In 1878 he was sworn of the privy council, and placed on the committee of the council for education in Scotland (2 April). As lord advocate he conducted the prosecution of the fraudulent directors of the City of Glasgow Bank, and several civil actions arising out of the failure. On 28 April 1880 he was appointed to the place among the lords of appeal in ordinary, vacant by the recent death of Lord Gordon, and created a life peer by the title of Baron Watson of Thankerton, Lanarkshire.

A lord advocate of less than four years' standing, who enters the highest judiciary of the empire, might not unreasonably plead his limited experience as a reason for occupying himself mainly, if not exclusively, with the decision of Scottish cases. Almost, however, from the outset Watson grappled boldly and unreservedly with the multi-farious, intricate, and frequently recondite legal problems which constitute the staple topics of the judicial deliberations of the House of Lords and privy council, and his great natural acumen and extraordinary assiduity gave to his decisions a soundness and solidity worthy the best traditions of British jurisprudence. The conversance with the civil law which he owed to his Scottish training stood him in good stead in dealing with appeals from colonies in which it still forms the basis of the jurisprudence (see Law Reports, Appeal Cases, xii. 562); but where such aid failed him, as in vexed questions of domicile (ib. xiii. 436; 1895, p. 522), or French or Indian custom, his judgments were no less able, while the part which he took in determining the policy and practice of the privy council in the exercise of the prerogatival jurisdiction in Canadian cases was of capital constitutional importance. His mastery of English law, if less conspicuous, was hardly less consummate; his authority on Scottish law was immense; nor can he be justly taxed with provincialism because he showed himself sedulous to preserve its purity (ib. vii. 393). In later life he was reputed the profoundest lawyer in the three kingdoms, and his influence was commensurate.

Watson has thus been generally credited with a principal share in the responsibility for the decision in Lord Sheffield's case, which was perhaps justified by the peculiar facts upon which it turned, but would unquestionably, if followed, have seriously hampered the business of the banking community. This consequence was in fact only obviated by a later decision (ib. 1892, p. 201; cf. Hershell, Farrer, Lord Herschell); but the aberration, if such it must be deemed, was unique in a career of nearly twenty years of splendid service, which has left an ineffaceable impress upon every part of our legal system.

Watson was homely in appearance and unassuming in manner, though a merciless dissector of bad argument. He never lost his broad Scottish accent or acquired the niceties of English style, but his judgments are distinguished by a methodical arrangement and massive strength of diction which amply atone for their occasional infelicity of phrase. The care which he lavished on them was prompted neither by zest nor by ambition, but by sheer sense of duty; for law, if not positively irksome, was at any rate not particularly congenial to him, while of ambition he had not a jot. He was a keen sportsman, but otherwise somewhat indolent, and would probably have been happier in a quiet country life than while dispensing justice in the most august tribunals of the British empire.

Watson died at Sunlaw's House, Kelso, on 14 Sept. 1899, leaving issue by his wife Margaret (m. 6 Aug. 1868, d.3 March 1898), daughter of Dugald John Bannatyne. An 'Address on the Repression of Crime,' delivered by "Watson in 1877 before the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, is printed in the 'Transactions' of the association.

[Foster's Men at the Bar; Burke's Peerage, 1899; G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage; Irving's Book of Scotsmen; Reports of Cases before the High Court of Justiciary, iv. 161 et seq.; Scottish Law Keporter, xiii-xvii.; Men and Women of the Time, 1899; Members of Parliament (Official Lists); Lords' Journal, cxii. 130; Times, 15 Sept. 1899; Ann. Reg. 1899, ii. 16-5; Law Journal, 16 Sept. 1899; Law Times, 23 Sept. 1899; Juridical Review, 1899, pp. 269-81.]

J. M. R.