Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Day, John Charles Frederick Sigismund

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1503084Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, Volume 1 — Day, John Charles Frederick Sigismund1912James Beresford Atlay

DAY, Sir JOHN CHARLES FREDERIC SIGISMUND (1826–1908), judge, son of Captain John Day of the 49th foot, of Englishbatch, near Bath, by his wife Emily, daughter of Jan Caspar Hartsinck, was born at the Hague on 20 June 1826. His parents were Roman catholics, and he received his education at Freiburg and at the Benedictine College of St. Gregory at Downside, near Bath. In 1845 he graduated B.A. at London and entered at the Middle Temple (29 Oct.). Called to the bar by that society on 26 Jan. 1849, he chose the home circuit, and early made his mark by becoming joint editor of Roscoe's 'Evidence at Nisi Prius,' and by bringing out the first annotated edition of the Common Law Procedure Act of 1852 (4th edit. 1872), thus acquiring the reputation of an authority on the new methods of pleading and practice. He soon enjoyed a lucrative and substantial business as a junior, owing no small part of his success in advocacy to his whimsical countenance and his variety of facial expression. To the end of his life he retained the whiskers which were fashionable in his early manhood, and his dry humour, aided by much natural shrewdness and a wide acquaintance with human nature, made him irresistible to juries in breach of promise and libel cases. He was also largely employed in election petitions. He took silk in 1872 and was made a bencher of his inn next year; he served as treasurer in 1896. In June 1882 he was made a judge of the Queen's Bench Division, receiving the honour of knighthood. Though he occupied a seat on the bench for nearly twenty years, the reputation he acquired there never equalled that which he enjoyed at the bar; while a sound and capable lawyer, he showed little interest in the problems of law which came before him when sitting in banc, and his apparent inattention, combined with his habit of never taking notes, made him very unpopular with civil litigants. In reality his retentive memory and native commonsense seldom failed him. When administering tHe criminal law, especially on circuit, he showed a sternness and upheld a standard of conduct which belonged to another age. The severity with which he punished the young roughs locally known as the 'High Rip gang' at Liverpool in 1887 was long remembered with gratitude in the north of England. He was a firm believer in the lash, and by perambulating the worst streets of Liverpool at night accompanied by his marshal and a single detective he got a first-hand acquaintance with the conditions of life in that city. But the sentences which he habitually dealt out in cases of minor crimes or indiscretions were extraordinary as coming from a man who was remarkably tender-hearted in private life; and where sexual immorality was concerned he knew no compassion, and seemed lost to all sense of proportion. Here the intensity of his religious convictions swayed him to the prejudice of judicial calmness. But his punishments were inflicted on a system of his own*after careful inquiry, which led to the now universal practice of furnishing the judge with a complete dossier of the prisoner, an innovation which in practice does not always conduce to the impartial administration of justice.

The fact of his being a very devout Roman catholic led to the only two incidents in Day's career which brought him prominently before the public at large. In October 1886, as representing his co-religionists, he was appointed chairman of the royal commission to inquire into the Belfast riots of the preceding summer, and his refusal to allow counsel for the incriminated parties to cross-examine the witnesses involved him in an acute controversy with some of the leaders of the Irish bar. In July 1888 he was nominated, with Sir James Hannen [q. v. Suppl. I] and Sir A. L. Smith [q. v. Suppl. II], one of the three members of what was known as the Parnell commission appointed by Act of Parliament to investigate the allegations against certain Irish members contained in the pamphlet entitled 'Parnellism and Crime.' Like his two colleagues Day had never taken any part in politics, but he had a year or two previously made some ill-judged or probably mis-reported remarks about Irishmen at the Liverpool assizes, and his appointment was bitterly assailed by the nationalist members. In the course of debate in the House of Commons (30 July) Mr. John (afterwards Viscount) Morley quoted a private letter from one of the Belfast commissioners, Judge Adams, who wrote that 'Mr. Justice Day is a man of the seventeenth century in his views, a catholic as strong as Torquemada, a tory of the old high flier and non-juror type.' Day was vigorously defended from the ministerial benches. During the protracted proceedings of the Parnell commission he maintained an almost unbroken silence, and his cadaverous features were expressive of profound boredom; but it was gossip in the Temple that it was his insistence on early proof being tendered of the authenticity of the letters attributed to Parnell which forced Pigott into the box and led to the collapse of that part of the case. Day resigned at the beginning of the Michaelmas sittings of 1901, and was sworn of the privy council.

Day's Catholicism was of the continental rather than the English type, and he had small sympathy with modern thought or manners. But his convictions did not debar him from warm friendship with those who were his opposites from every point of view, and his constant travelling companion at home and abroad was a fervent baptist and radical, William Willis [q. v. Suppl. II], county court judge. Though no great horseman, he was fond when it was practicable of preserving the old custom of riding round the circuit' From his early years he had been a keen and discriminating patron of contemporary painting; his collection, comprising some of the choicest works of Millet and Corot, fetched 95,000l. when sold by auction (13 May 1909) after his death. He died on 13 June 1908 at his residence, Falkland Lodge, Newbury, and was buried at the Roman catholic cemetery, Kensal Green. He was twice married: (1) on 1 Oct. 1846 to Henrietta (d. 26 March 1893), daughter of Joseph Henry Brown, by whom he had six sons and three daughters; (2) on 19 May 1900 to Edith, daughter of Edmund Westby; she survived him. A portrait in oils by Prince Troubetzkoy belongs to his widow. A cartoon portrait by 'Spy' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1888.

[The Times, 14 June 1908; Men of the Time; Hansard, 3rd ser. cccxxix. 806; Sir John Day, by William Willis, K.C. (privately printed), 1909; personal knowledge; private information.]

J. B. A.