Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hewitt, James

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HEWITT, JAMES, Viscount Lifford (1709–1789), lord chancellor of Ireland, born in Coventry in 1709, was son of William Hewitt, a mercer and draper, who was in 1744 mayor of Coventry. With the view of becoming an attorney he served his time with James Birch of the same place, receiver-general for the county of Warwick, but soon after resolved to join the bar, entered the Middle Temple in 1737, and was called in November 1742. Before long he secured a considerable share of business. He stood for Coventry unsuccessfully in 1754, but was returned for the borough at the general election in 1761. His legal success had procured him in 1755 the dignity of the coif, and four years after the position of king's serjeant. He was a ponderous speaker. Charles Townsend, when leaving the house one day, was asked ‘whether the house was up?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘but the serjeant is.’

On 6 Nov. 1766 Hewitt was appointed to a vacant judgeship in the king's bench, with the promise of further promotion, and on 9 Jan. 1768 received his patent as lord chancellor of Ireland. On the same day he was created Baron Lifford in the Irish peerage, and he was advanced to a viscountcy in January 1781. Lifford was lord chancellor of Ireland during the struggle between the two parliaments which resulted in the short-lived independence of the Irish legislature. He held the great seal for twenty-two years, longer than any of his predecessors from the time of Edward I. Having amassed a considerable fortune, the emoluments of the office in his time being estimated at 12,000l. per annum, he intended to resign on a pension, but died in Dublin, on 28 April 1789, of a severe cold caught at the House of Lords. He was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, where there is an inscription to his memory.

He married (1) the only daughter of the Rev. Rice Williams, D.D., rector of Stapleford Abbots, Essex, prebendary of Worcester, and archdeacon of Carmarthen, and had, with other issue, James (1750–1830), who succeeded him, and was for more than thirty years dean of Armagh; Joseph (d. 1794), who was a judge of the king's bench in Ireland; and John (d. 1804), who was dean of Cloyne; (2) Ambrosia, daughter of the Rev. Charles Bayley of Navestock, Essex, and by her also had issue.

Lifford's success as a judge was due to the accuracy of his technical knowledge and general professional skill; and though formal in manner, and with old-fashioned ideas, by his patience and urbanity he gained universal esteem. He was the first lord chancellor of Ireland whose judgments have been preserved. Many of them remain in manuscript; but a volume entitled ‘Reports of Select Cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery in Ireland, principally in the time of Lord Lifford,’ was published in 1839. Though these decisions range from 1767 to 1786, they were entirely overlooked by the profession until they appeared in print. They show a greater degree of legal learning and acquaintance with the authority of decided cases than the bar of Ireland at the time had credit for, and are the best monuments which we possess of the profession in the last century.

[Lodge's Peerage of Ireland, ed. Archdall, vi. 53; Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, 1880, p. 754; Foss's Judges of England, p. 345; Smyth's Law Officers of Ireland, p. 41; O'Flanagan's Lord Chancellors of Ireland, ii. 125–55; Gent. Mag. 1789, lix. pt. i. p. 468; Finlayson's Monumental Inscriptions, &c. in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, p. 32.]

B. H. B.