Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Rigby, John
RIGBY, Sir JOHN (1834–1903), judge, born at Runcorn, Cheshire, on 4 Jan. 1834, was second son of Thomas Rigby of that place by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Joseph Kendall of Liverpool. He received his early education at the institution which afterwards became Liverpool College, and matriculating at Trinity College, Cambridge, in Michaelmas term 1852, he was elected to an open scholarship there in 1854. In 1856 he graduated as second wrangler and second Smith's prizeman, taking a second class in the classical tripos. He became fellow of his college in the same year, and proceeded M.A. in 1859. He entered as a student at Lincoln's Inn on 17 Oct. 1855, and was called to the bar on 26 Jan. 1860. Starting as 'devil' in the chambers of Richard Baggallay, Q.C. [q. v. Suppl. I], one of the leaders of the chancery bar, he rapidly acquired a large practice both in chambers and in court, and in 1875 Baggallay, who was then attorney-general, made him junior equity counsel to the treasury, a post which is held to confer the reversion of a judgeship. Rigby, however, was not content to wait; he took silk in 1880 and attached himself to the court of Mr. Justice Kay [q. v. Suppl. I], where he obtained a complete ascendancy both over his rivals and over the judge himself. Within a very few years he was in a position to confine his main practice to the court of appeal, the House of Lords, and the privy council, only going before the judges at first instance with a special fee. The rivals with whom he divided the work were Horace (afterwards Baron) Davey [q. v. Suppl. II], Edward (afterwards Lord) Macnaghten, and Montague Cookson (afterwards Crackanthorpe). In May 1884 he was made a bencher of his inn.
In December 1885 he entered parliament as the liberal member for the Wisbech division of Cambridgeshire, and in the split which arose out of the introduction of the home rule bill of 1886 he followed Gladstone, and made a powerful speech in support of the second reading (28 May 1886). At the general election of that year he lost his seat, and did not return to the House of Commons until July 1892, when he was elected for Forfarshire. So little had his fame penetrated beyond legal circles, that he was denounced in his new constituency as an English carpet-bagger on the look-out for [a county court judgeship. He was appointed solicitor-general by Gladstone on 20 Aug. 1892, receiving the honour of knighthood, and on 3 May 1894 he became attorney-general in succession to Sir Charles (afterwards Lord) Russell (of Killowen); a few weeks later he took the place in the court of appeal vacated by his old rival Sir Horace Davey, then appointed to be a lord of appeal, and was admitted to the privy council.
Rigby owed his success at the bar to a complete mastery of the science of equity, to his ingenuity and pertinacity, and to his impressive and rugged personality. 'He had a natural gift for rhetoric,' says a writer in 'The Times,' 'in which his fervid utterance seemed to contend with an almost pedantic desire to measure his words and give weight to every syllable.' He had a rare faculty of being at his best in a bad case, and of never losing confidence either in the integrity of his client or in his ultimate success with the court. During his short term as law officer he gave invaluable assistance to Sir William Harcourt over the intricate details of the Finance Act of 1893. He was not so successful in his discharge of general parliamentary business. His unconventional ways, apparent lack of humour, and somewhat uncouth exterior at first provoked the ridicule of opponents. But the popularity which he enjoyed at the bar was ultimately assured him in the house. As solicitor-general he conducted at the central criminal court without success the prosecution of the directors of the Hansard Union. Rigby, who was entirely without experience of this branch of his profession, betrayed a bewilderment which was almost pathetic. The case, which lasted for twenty-four days, terminated on 26 April 1893 in the acquittal of all the defendants.
On the bench he did not altogether justify the high expectations that had been formed of him. He displayed his accustomed skill and ingenuity in the unravelling of complicated and contradictory statutes; he showed characteristic independence and individuality in coming to a conclusion, and his dissentient judgments were from time to time upheld by the House of Lords in preference to those of his colleagues. But his intellect, which was massive rather than flexible, failed to adapt itself to new demands. He resigned in October 1901, after showing signs of falling powers, the effect, as was believed, of a severe fall a year or two previously. He died on 26 July 1903 at Carlyle House, Chelsea, and was buried at Finchley. He was unmarried.
An oil painting by A. T. Nowell is in the possession of his family; cartoon portraits, by 'Stuff' and 'Spy' respectively, appeared in ’Vanity Fair' of 1893 and 1901.
[The Times, 27 July 1903; private information.]