Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Beckett, Edmund

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BECKETT, Sir EDMUND, first Baron Grimthorpe (1816–1905), lawyer, mechanician and controversialist, born at Carlton Hall, near Newark, on 12 May 1816, was eldest son of Sir Edmund Beckett, fourth baronet (1787–1874), who assumed the additional surname of Denison by royal letters patent in 1816 and resumed his original surname by the same process on succeeding to the baronetcy in 1872. The elder Sir Edmund was conservative M.P. for the West Riding in 1841 and again from 1848 to 1859. Beckett's mother, who died on 27 March 1874, was Maria, daughter of William Beverley of Beverley, and great-niece and heiress of Anne, daughter of Roundell Smithson of Millfield, near Harewood, and widow of Sir Thomas Denison, judge of the king's bench.

Educated at Doncaster grammar school, Eton, and Trinity College, Cambridge, Beckett Denison graduated B.A. as thirtieth wrangler in 1838 (M.A. 1841, LL.D. 1863). He was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1841, became a Q.C. in 1854, a bencher of his inn in the same year, and its treasurer in 1876. He soon acquired a large practice, chiefly in connection with railway bills, becoming famous for his severe cross-examination and retentive memory. Advancing rapidly in his profession, Beckett Denison had by 1860 become recognised as the leader of the parliamentary bar, though his powers of sarcasm and assertive manner stood him in better stead with committees and rival counsel than his knowledge of law. He was very tenacious of the rights of the inns of court, and strongly resented any attempt to interfere with them. Keeping a keen eye on his fees, he accumulated a large fortune. He ceased to practise regularly after 1880, though he still accepted an occasional brief. Succeeding his father in the baronetcy on 24 May 1874, Beckett Denison followed his example by discarding the second surname. As Sir Edmund Beckett he was appointed chancellor and vicar-general of the province of York in 1877, an office which he held until 1900. Beckett was created a peer by the title of Baron Grimthorpe of Grimthorpe, Yorkshire, on 17 Feb. 1886, with remainder to the issue male of his father.

Meanwhile Grimthorpe showed an exceptional versatility of interest in matters outside the law, and conducted numerous controversies on ecclesiastical, architectural, scientific, and other topics with vigour and acrimony. His earliest energies were engaged in theological warfare. In 1848 he published ‘Six Letters on Dr. Todd's Discourses on the Prophecies relating to the Apocalypse,’ a strenuous polemic. The controversy on marriage with a deceased wife's sister then engaged his attention, and between 1849 and 1851 he produced four pamphlets in favour of that cause, the most important of which was ‘A Short Letter on the Bishop of Exeter's [Dr. Phillpotts'] Speech on the Marriage Bill.’ To the end of his life he supported a measure of relief.

As chancellor of York he became the attached friend of the archbishop, William Thomson [q. v.], but did not hesitate to criticise episcopal proceedings with freedom, when he disagreed with them. A strong advocate of reform in church discipline, he gave evidence before the royal commission of 1883, and drafted a disciplinary bill of his own with racy notes, which he sent to the commissioners. There followed an outspoken ‘Letter to the Archbishop of York on the Report of the Commission on Ecclesiastical Courts.’ Together with Dean Burgon [q. v. Suppl. I], he took exception to the revised version of the New Testament, publishing in 1882 ‘Should the Revised New Testament be Authorised?’ and a rejoinder to Dr. Farrar's answer to that criticism [see Farrar, Frederick William, Suppl. II]. Much alarmed by the spread of ritualism in the Church of England, he became president of the Protestant Churchmen's Alliance, which held its inaugural meeting in Exeter Hall in 1889. The Lincoln judgment of 1890 [see King, Edward, Suppl. II] stirred him to write what Archbishop Benson called a ‘furious letter,’ entitled ‘A Review of the Lambeth Judgment in Read v. the Bishop of Lincoln' (A. C. Benson's Edward White Benson, ii. 373). Benson acknowledged Grimthorpe's assistance on the church patronage bill of 1893, when he produced ' a set of amendments really helpful.' The measure was reintroduced and passed its second reading two years afterwards with Grimthorpe's approval. When, later, in 1895, Lord Halifax moved the second reading of a divorce bill, amending the Act by which the clergy were compelled to lend their churches for the remarriage of those guiltily divorced, Grimthorpe ' treated this relief as an attempt to secure the "supremacy of the clergy," and vituperated the archbishop of York as a Solon and Janus.' 'I never,' wrote Benson, 'saw spite so open in the house before ' (ibid. ii. 641). Not long before his death, Grimthorpe eagerly supported Sir William Harcourt [q. v. Suppl. II], who was denouncing ritualistic practices in a series of letters to ' The Times.' His standpoint through all his disputes was strongly erastian and orthodox, as he understood orthodoxy.

Architecture, especially on its ecclesiastical side, also long occupied Grimthorpe's mind. In 1855 he published ' Lectures on Gothic Architecture, chiefly in relation to St. George's Church at Doncaster. ' This parish church, having been burnt down, was rebuilt by Sir George Gilbert Scott [q. v.], with suggestions from Grimthorpe, who contributed liberally to the funds. Grimthorpe, while expressing admiration of Scott's work, was mercilessly sarcastic at the expense of Scott's rivals ; Scott on his side admitted Grimthorpe's generosity and strenuous support of sound architecture, but ungraciously added that ' he has an unpleasant way of doing things, which makes one hate one's best work' (Scott's Personal and Professional Recollections, 173). Grimthorpe next published 'A Book on Building, Civil and Ecclesiastical, with the Theory of Domes and of the Great Pyramid' (1876; 2nd edit., enlarged, 1880), which again contained many shrewd hits at the architectural profession. In it are enumerated the buildings which he himself had 'substantially designed,' including the Church of St. James, Doncaster, in which Scott had a hand (ib.) ; St. Chad's Church, Headingley; Cliffe parish church in the East Riding; St. Paul's, Burton-on-Trent; the tower-top of Worcester Cathedral; Doncaster grammar school, and the extension of Lincoln's Inn library. His influence is also to be traced in the injudicious restoration of Lincoln's Inn chapel in 1882, but his contemplated demolition of Sir Thomas Lovell's gatehouse in Chancery Lane was happily frustrated.

The architectural enterprise with which his name is inseparably connected came later. Living in a house at Batch Wood, St. Albans, designed by himself, ' the only architect with whom I have never quarrelled,' he was much interested in the unsound condition of St. Albans Abbey, and the endeavour of the St. Albans reparation committee to fit it for cathedral and parochial service. He subscribed generously to the funds, contributing, from first to last, some 130,000l., and interfered freely with Scott the architect. ' The leader,' wrote Scott in 1877, ' among those who wish me to do what I ought not to do is Sir Edmund Beckett ' (ib. 357). In 1880, various parts of the building being in danger of falling down, and the committee having exhausted its funds and being 3000l. in debt, Grimthorpe obtained a faculty to 'restore, repair and refit' the church at his own expense. He set to work with characteristic zeal, and by 1885 the nave was finished. But his arbitrary treatment of the roof and new west front and his insertion of windows in the terminations of the transepts excited the fiercest criticism, and he returned blow for blow. In favouring a high-pitched roof, instead of the existing flat roof, he found himself at sharp issue with George Edmund Street [q. v. Suppl. I], but nothing could divert him from his purpose (A. E. Street's Memoir of George Edmund Street, 242-7). Meanwhile Henry Hucks Gibbs, afterwards Lord Aldenham [q. v. Suppl. II], had obtained a concurrent faculty to restore the high altar screen, and a conflict of authorities ensued. In 1889 the case came before Sir Francis Jeune [q. v. Suppl. II], chancellor of the diocese, the point really at issue being Gibbs's right to fill up the central place on the high altar with a crucifix. Grimthorpe conducted his own case against Sir Walter Phillimore and Mr. C. A. Cripps, Q.C. Neither side was completely successful, but Gibbs was eventually allowed to erect the crucifix. Grimthorpe described his part in the St. Albans controversies in ' St. Albans Cathedral and its Restoration' (1885; 2nd edit., revised and enlarged, 1890), which, though purporting to be a guide-book, is also a somewhat vehement review of old arguments with 'Street and Co.,' 'sham critics of shams,' and others.

Through his long life Grimthorpe was further busy over mechanical inventions, working at them with his own hands. In 1850 he published a clearly written and instructive work, 'A Rudimentary Treatise on Clock and Watchmaldng.' It passed through eight editions, with some changes of title, becoming in 1903 'A Rudimentary Treatise on Clocks, Watches and Bells, with a new preface and a new list of great bells and an appendix on weathercocks.' His articles on clocks, watches and bells in the ' Encyclopaedia Britannica,' which were reprinted separately, were based on this work. He designed the great clock for the International Exhibition of 1851, made by Kihvard John Dent [q. v.] ; it is now at King's Cross railway station. In the same year he undertook, in conjunction with (Sir) George Biddell Airy [q. v. Suppl. I] and Dent, the construction of the great clock for the clock-tower in the Houses of Parliament, Westminster. The design was his, as an inscription records, and it included his new gravity escapement, in which a pendulum weighing 6 cwt. is kept going by a scape wheel weighing little more than a quarter of an ounce ; this is known as the ' double three-legged gravity escapement,' and was inserted in 1859. Grimthorpe also prepared the specifications for the bell commonly called ' Big Ben,' after Sir Benjamin Hall, commissioner of public works. The clock and ' Big Ben,' like most of Grimthorpe's undertakings, involved him in fierce controversies, and he waged battle for sixteen years with the office of public works, with Sir Charles Barry [q. v.] the architect, with Sir George Airy, who withdrew from the undertaking, and others. In the libel action, Stainbank v. Beckett, turning on the soundness of the lx-11, he was cast in 200l. damages (1859). (For an excellent, if disputatious account of the Westminster clock, see Beckett's Rudimentary Treatise, 8th edit. ; also the Journal of the Soc. of Arts, 13 Jan. 1854, and the Horological Journal, xv.). Girimthorpe was elected president of the Horological Institute in 1868, on condition that he should not attend dinners, and was annually re-elected, though not always without opposition. In the preface to the eighth edition of the 'Rudimentary treatise' he stated that he had 'either directly or indirectly ' designed over forty clocks, ' including those at Westminster and St. Paul's (with the great peal of bells), and in many other cathedrals and churches, as well as town-halls, railways stations and others in several of our colonies.' The new clock at St. Paul's Cathedral, which was constructed after his specifications, was finished in 1893 ; ho said of its makers, Messrs. John Smith of Derby, that they 'would clock you in the best way and as near eternity as possible' ({{sc|Sinclair's Memorials of St. Pants Cathedral, 430-4). Grimthorpe's services and advice were always gratuitously given, and no municipal council or country clergyman, who approached him with due deference on the subject of clocks or bells, ever appealed to him in vain.

In 1852 Grimthorpe invented an ingenious lock, but it proved to be too elaborate for commercial success ; it does not appear to have been patented. The wide scope of his scientific knowledge was further proved by a clever little handbook, 'Astronomy without Mathematics ' (1865).

He died at Batch Wood, St. Albans, on 29 April 1905, after a short illness, aggravated by a fall. He was interred by his wife's side in the north-west side of the burial-ground of St. Albans Cathedral. His personal estate was valued at 1 ,562,500l., and he left a complicated will with many codicils which was the cause of prolonged litigation. He had married on 7 Oct. 1845 Fanny Catherine (d. 1901), daughter of Dr. John Lonsdale [q. v.], bishop of Lichfield. Leaving no issue, he was succeeded in the baronetcy and in the peerage (by special remainder) by his nephew, Ernest William Beckett, born 25 Nov. 1856, who had been M.P. for the Whitby division of Yorkshire since 1885.

Lord Grimthorpe, who owed his peerage to his activity in ecclesiastical matters, I combined with his architectural skill and I mechanical genius, possessed a manly intellect and varied talents. If he won his position at the bar by his self-assertive personality rather than by learning, his knowledge of horology was unquestioned, and he had a genuine grasp of architectural principles, though he was inclined to be ruthless in carrying them out. His mind, unfortunately, was given to cavil, and, troubled by no doubts on any subject, he rushed into print, often without provocation. In his ecclesiastical controversies he at times appeared in an unamiable light. His faults were, however, outweighed by the strength of Ms friendships, the largeness of his generosity, and his kindness towards those who stood in need of help. He was tall and stern of aspect and was always faithful to early Victorian costume. Besides the works cited Grimthorpe wrote his father-in-law's biography, 'The Life of John Lonsdale, Bishop of Lichfield, with some of his Writings' (1868); and 'A Review of Hume and Huxley on Miracles' (S.P.C.K. 1883), which Bishop Harold Browne considered one of the best books in defence of the Christian faith. Of kindred purpose was his volume ' On the Origin of the Laws of Nature ' (1879). His masculine common sense appeared in 'Trade Unionism and its Results' (1878), a hostile criticism which he originally wrote as letters in ' The Times.' A cartoon portrait by 'Spy' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1889.

[The Times, 1 May 1905; Guardian, 3 May 1905; Law Times, 6 May 1905; Horological Journal, June 1905, art. by F. J. Britten (with portraits).]

L. C. S.