Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mitford, John Freeman-

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MITFORD, JOHN FREEMAN-, first Baron Redesdale (1748–1830), younger son of John Mitford of Newton House, Kent, and Exbury, Hampshire, by his wife Philadelphia, daughter of William Reveley of Newby Wiske, Yorkshire, was born in the parish of St. Andrew, Holborn, on 18 Aug. 1748, and was educated with his brother William [q. v.] at Cheam, under the Rev. William Gilpin [q. v.] At an early age he entered the Six Clerks' office, but afterwards determined to be a barrister, and in 1772 was admitted a student of the Inner Temple. He was called to the bar on 9 May 1777, and in 1780 published 'A Treatise on the Pleadings in Suits in the Court of Chancery by English Bill,' London, 8vo, anon. Lord Eldon subsequently characterised this treatise as f a wonderful effort to collect what is to be deduced from authorities speaking so little what is clear' (Preface to the fifth edition by J. W. Smith, 1847), while Sir Thomas Plumer declared that it reduced 'the whole subject to a system with such universally acknowledged learning, accuracy, and discrimination, as to have been ever since received by the whole profession as an authoritative standard and guide' (Jacob and Walker, Reports, ii. 151-2). Owing to the success of his book (which has passed through several English and American editions), Mitford rapidly acquired a large practice at the chancery bar. Through the influence of his cousin, the Duke of Northumberland, he was returned to parliament for the borough of Beeralston, Devonshire, in December 1788, and in July 1789 became a king's counsel, and was appointed a Welsh judge. In 1791 he introduced a bill for ' the relief of persons calling themselves protesting dissenting Catholics, under certain conditions and restrictions' (Part. Hist. xxviii. 1262-4, 1364-5), which after some amendment was passed through both houses and became law (31 Geo. Ill, c. 32). Mitford, however, opposed Fox's motion for the repeal of the penal statutes respecting religious opinions in the following year (ib. xxix. 1398). In January 1793 he supported the Alien Bill in a vigorous speech (ib. xxx. 217-19), and on 13 Feb. following he was appointed solicitor-general in the place of Sir John Scott (afterwards Lord Eldon), receiving the honour of knighthood two days afterwards. As counsel for the crown, Mitford took part in the prosecutions of Daniel Isaac Eaton, Thomas Hardy, John Home Tooke, William Stone, Robert Thomas Crossfield, John Reeves, and James O'Coigley (see Howell, State Trials, vols. xxii. xxiv-xxvii.) He succeeded Scott as attorney-general on 17 July 1799, and, resigning his seat at Beeralston, was returned for the borough of East Looe, Cornwall. On 11 Feb. 1801, after a futile attempt at opposition on the part of Sheridan, he was elected speaker of the House of Commons in the place of Addington (Parl. Hist. xxxv. 948-55), and was admitted to the privy council on the 18th of the same month. On Lord Clare's death Mitford was appointed lord chancellor of Ireland (9 Feb. 1802), and was created a peer of the United Kingdom with the title of Baron Redesdale of Redesdale in the county of Northumberland, on 15 Feb. 1802. He was sworn a member of the Irish privy council on 9 March, and took his seat in the Irish court of chancery for the first time on 5 May 1802. Though his conduct on the bench was beyond suspicion, Redesdale was unpopular with the majority of the Irish people, owing to his bitter opposition to catholic emancipation and his openly expressed distrust of the catholic priesthood. His letters to the Earl of Fingal, in which he wantonly attacked the Roman catholics, were severely criticised in the House of Commons by Canning and Fox (Parl. Debates, 1st ser. i. 760-2, 787-8). In May 1804 Cobbett was convicted of libelling Redesdale and Hardwicke (the lord-lieutenant) in certain letters on the affairs of Ireland, signed 'Inverna,' which appeared in the 'Political Register.' After his conviction it was discovered that the letters had been written by Robert Johnson, one of the justices of the common pleas in Ireland, who was tried at bar in the king's bench at Westminster on 23 Nov. 1805, and found guilty. Redesdale made an elaborate speech against Lord Grenville's motion for a committee on the Roman catholic petition on 10 May 1805, and declared that the abolition of the Roman catholic 'hierarchy was in his opinion the first step to that conciliation which he believed could alone produce peace to Ireland' (ib. iv. 1061-1082). At the beginning of 1806 he involved himself in an injudicious controversy with Valentine, lord Cloncurry, who was desirous of being placed upon the commission of the peace (Personal Recollections of Lord Cloncurry, 1849, pp. 221-30). On the formation of the ministry of All the Talents, Redesdale was promptly dismissed from the chancellorship, and took leave of the Irish bar on 4 March 1806. He accepted a seat at the board of trade and foreign plantations on 30 March 1808, but refused the offer of his old office in Ireland, which his brother-in-law, Perceval, is said to have made to him on becoming premier. He took an active part in the parliamentary debates and in the hearing of appeals and peerage claims. He introduced the bill for the creation of the office of the vice-chancellor for England (53 Geo. III, c. 24), and, in spite of the opposition of Eldon and Ellenborough, his bills for the relief of insolvent debtors (53 Geo. III, c. 102, and 54 Geo. Ill, c. 23) passed into law (see Parl. Debates, 1st ser. xxiv. 182; Memoirs of Sir Samuel Romilly, 1840, iii. 107-13, 118, 120-4). He opposed to the last the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and the emancipation of the Roman catholics, and continued to support the restrictions on the importation of corn. He spoke for the last time in the House of Lords on 21 May 1829 (Parl. Debates, 2nd ser. xxi. 1507). He died at Batsford Park, near Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Gloucestershire, on 16 Jan. 1830, aged 81, and was buried in Batsford Church, which he had rebuilt in 1822.

Redesdale was 'a sallow man, with round face and blunt features, of a middle height, thickly and heavily built, and had a heavy, drawling, tedious manner of speech' (Sir E. Brydges, Autobiography, i. 159). Sheil says that he introduced a reformation in Irish practice by substituting ' great learning, unwearied diligence, and a spirit of scientific discussion for the flippant apothegms and irritable self-sufficiency of Lord Clare' [see Fitzgibbon, John] (Sketches of the Irish Bar, 1854, i. 228), and Story has pronounced him to be 'one of the ablest judges that ever sat in equity' (Commentaries on Equity Jurisprudence, 1884, i. 14). His integrity was unimpeachable, his manners were stiff, and his sense of humour was deficient. An amusing anecdote of his encounter with the wits of the Irish bar will be found in Sir Jonah Barrington's 'Personal Sketches of his own Times,' 1869, i. 185-7. Redesdale married, on 6 June 1803, Lady Frances Perceval, seventh daughter of John, second earl of Egmont, by whom he had an only son, John Thomas Freeman-Mitford, earl of Redesdale [q. v.], and three daughters, viz. Frances Elizabeth, who died at Batsford Park on 7 Nov. 1866, aged 62, and Catherine and Elizabeth, both of whom died young. His wife died in Harley Street, London, on 22 Aug. 1817, aged 49. Redesdale was elected a bencher of the Inner Temple on 13 Nov. 1789, and acted as treasurer of the society in 1796. He was elected F.S.A. on 9 Jan. 1794, and F.R.S. on 6 March 1794. He succeeded Eldon as chancellor of D urham, and was a member of the first, second, and third commissions on public records, and also of the commission of inquiry into the practice of the court of chancery. On the death of Thomas Edwards Freeman (whose ancestor, Richard Freeman, held the post of lord chancellor of Ireland from 1707 to 1710) in February 1808, Redesdale came into the possession of the Batsford property, and assumed the additional surname of Freeman by royal license of 28 Jan. 1809 (London Gazettes, 1809, pt. i. p. 131). There is an engraved portrait of Redesdale by G. Clint, after Sir Thomas Lawrence. Redesdale's Irish judgments will be found in Schoales and Lefroy's 'Reports of Cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery in Ireland,' &c., Dublin, 1806-10, 8vo, 2 vols. His letter to Lord Hardwicke upon the state of the public records of Ireland is printed in the appendix to the ' First General Report from the Commissioners on Public Records' (pp. 309-10). He drew up the ' Report from the Lords' Committees appointed to search the Journals of the House . . . for all Matters touching the Dignity of a Peer,' &c. (Parl. Papers, 1821, xi. 181 et seq.), and wrote 'a short account' of his brother, William Mitford, which was prefixed to William King's edition of the 'History of Greece,' London, 1822, 8vo. A number of Redesdale's letters are published in Lord Colchester's ' Diary and Correspondence,' 1861.

He was also the author of:

  1. 'The Catholic Question. Correspondence between . . . Lord Redesdale . . . and . . . the Earl of Fingall . . .[on the appointment of the latter as a justice of the peace for the county of Meath] from 28 Aug. to 26 Sept. 1803,' Dublin, 1804, 8vo.
  2. 'Observations occasioned by a Pamphlet entitled "Objections to the Project of creating a Vice-chancellor of England,"' London, 1813, 8vo.
  3. 'Considerations suggested by the Report made to his Majesty . . . respecting the Court of Chancery,' London, 1826, 8vo.
  4. 'An Address to the Protestants of the United Kingdom . . . and to those Roman Catholics whose Religious Opinions do not wholly overcome a just regard to the free Constitution of the British Government,' &c., London, 1829, 8vo.
  5. 'Nine Letters to Lord Colchester on the Catholic Question,' London, 1829, 8vo.
  6. 'A Political View of the Roman Catholic Question, especially regarding the Supremacy usurped by the Church of Rome,' &c., London, 1829, 8vo.
[O'Flanagan's Lives of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland, 1870, ii. 284-322; Burke's Hist, of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland, 1879, pp. 181-192; Townsend's Lives of Twelve Eminent Judges, 1846, ii. 145-90; Sir E. Brydges's Autobiography, 1834, i. 157-9, 250-1, 260-5,268-9, 298-9, 306-9, 357-60; Walpole's Hist, of England, 1st edit. i. 318, 509, ii. 77, 217-18, 221, 245, 474, iii. 46, 60; Manning's Speakers of the House of Commons, 1851, pp. 473-9; Law Mag. (1830), iii. 297-9; Gent. Mag. 1830, pt. i. p. 267; Ann. Eeg. 1830, pt. ii. pp. 473-9; Doyle's Official Baronage, 1886, iii. 103-4; Burke's Peerage, 1890, pp. 1509-10; Masters of the Bench of the Inner Temple, 1883, p. 85; Official Keturn of Lists of Members of Parliament, ii. 177, 189, 201, 202; Diet, of Living Authors, 1816, p. 283; Advocates' Libr. Cat.; Brit. Mus. Cat]

G. F. R. B.