Eyre, James (1734-1799) (DNB00)

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EYRE, Sir JAMES (1734–1799), judge, was son of the Rev. Thomas Eyre of Wells, Somersetshire, prebendary of Salisbury from 1733 till his death in 1753. Hoare (Modern Wiltshire, Frustfield Hundred, p. 60) connects him with the Wiltshire family of Eyre. Another son, Thomas, B.C.L., of St. John's College, Oxford, 1754, and D.C.L. 1759, prebendary and treasurer of Wells, and prebendary of Salisbury, died on 26 March 1812, aged 81. James, baptised at Wells on 13 Sept. 1734, became a scholar of Winchester in 1747 (Kirby, Winchester Scholars, p. 248), matriculated at St. John's College, Oxford, on 27 Oct. 1749, but did not take a degree (Foster, Alumni Oxon.) He entered Lincoln's Inn in November 1753, being described in the register as the son of ‘Mr. Chancellor Eyre.’ having two years later transferred his name to Gray's Inn, he was called to the bar there in 1755, became bencher in 1763 and treasurer in 1766. He purchased the place of counsel to the corporation of London, and pleaded for some years; chiefly in the lord mayor's and sheriff's courts. He was appointed deputy-recorder in February 1761, and recorder in April 1763, in succession to Sir William Moreton. He was one of Wilkes's counsel in the action of Wilkes v. Wood, tried on 6 Dec. 1763. The defendant being under-secretary of state had, in pursuance of a general warrant signed by his chief, Lord Halifax, entered and searched Wilkes's house for evidence establishing his authorship of the celebrated No. 45 of the ‘North Briton.’ Eyre made an elaborate speech, which is reported at some length in the ‘State Trials,’ xix. 1154–5, dilating on the outrage to the constitution which the execution of general search warrants involved, and, according to Lofft, the reporter, ‘shone extremely.’ The jury found for the plaintiff. Eyre, however, was by no means a partisan of Wilkes, and gave serious offence to the corporation by refusing to present to the king the remonstrance on the subject of the exclusion of Wilkes from parliament, drawn up for the corporation by Horne Tooke. The remonstrance was presented in the name of the corporation by Sir James Hodges, the town clerk, on 23 May 1770, and treated with contempt. The corporation passed a vote of censure on Eyre. The ministry, however, marked their approbation of his conduct by raising him to the exchequer bench in October 1772. He was knighted on 22 Oct. He was a member of the court which on 19 Nov. 1777 passed sentence of fine and imprisonment on Horne Tooke as the author and publisher of an advertisement soliciting subscriptions on behalf of ‘our beloved American fellow-subjects’ ‘inhumanly murdered by the king's troops at or near Lexington.’ On 26 Jan. 1787 he was raised to the presidency of the court of exchequer. In the interval between the resignation of Lord Thurlow and the appointment of Lord Loughborough, 15 June 1792 to 21 Jan. 1793, he was chief commissioner of the great seal. On 11 Feb. 1793 he was appointed chief justice of the common pleas. In this capacity he presided in November and December 1794 at the trials of Hardy, Horne Tooke, and others, charged with having conspired to subvert the constitution, displaying in the investigation some of the highest judicial qualities, patience, impartiality, and the power of sifting relevant from irrelevant matter, and presenting the former to the jury in a luminous manner. These qualities he again exhibited in the case of Thomas Crosfield and others, charged with conspiring to take the life of the king by means of a bow and arrow. The trial took place in May 1796, and ended, like those of Hardy and Horne Tooke, in an acquittal. Eyre died on 1 July 1799. He was buried in the parish church of Ruscombe, Berkshire, where he had his seat. His portrait hangs in Gray's Inn Hall, in the bay window of which his arms are emblazoned.

[Howell's State Trials, xix. 1154–5, xxiv. 199, xxv. 2, 748; Gent. Mag. (1763) p. 203, (1772) pp. 539, 543, (1799) p. 709; Stephens's Memoir of Horne Tooke, ii. 7 n.; Haydn's Book of Dignities; Lysons's Mag. Brit. i. 352; Douthwaite's Gray's Inn; Foss's Lives of the Judges.]

J. M. R.