Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Napier, Joseph
NAPIER, Sir JOSEPH (1804–1882), lord chancellor of Ireland, born at Belfast on 26 Dec. 1804, was youngest son of William Napier, a merchant of Belfast, and was a descendant of the Napiers of Merchiston. His mother was Rosetta Macnaghten of Ballyreagh House, co. Antrim. His only sister Rosetta married James Whiteside [q. v.], chief justice of Ireland. He was educated in the Belfast Academical Institution under James Sheridan Knowles [q. v.], and in November 1820 was entered at Trinity College, Dublin, under the tutorship of Dr. Singer, afterwards bishop of Meath. At the end of his first year he brought himself into notice by publishing a paper on the binomial theorem. Obtaining honours in classics and science, he graduated B.A. in 1825, and M.A. in 1828. After taking his bachelor's degree he resided within the walls of Trinity College, occupied himself in writing for periodicals, and took a conspicuous part in the establishment of an oratorical society outside the walls of the college, somewhat resembling the Union at Oxford. He was also successful in reviving the old College Historical Society, and his connection with it lasted fifty-eight years. From 1854 till his death he was president, and he instituted an annual prize—designated the ‘Napier Prose Composition Prize’—for the best essay on a subject to be selected by himself.
From the beginning of his career Napier adopted tory principles, while his religious views inclined to those of the protestant evangelical party. Through 1828 he actively opposed the movement for Roman catholic emancipation. Marrying in the same year, he determined to go to the English bar. Having entered himself at Gray's Inn, he became a pupil at the law school of the London University, and attended the lectures of Mr. Amos. After a few months he passed into the chambers of Mr. (afterwards Justice) Patteson, then the leading practitioner in common law, and in 1830, upon the promotion of Patteson to the bench, successfully practised for a term as a pleader in London.
Called to the Irish bar in the Easter term of 1831, he attached himself to the north-eastern circuit, and at once commanded an extensive practice in Dublin; he was the only lawyer there who had pupils. He published in 1831 a ‘Manual of Precedents of Forms and Declarations on Bills of Exchange and Promissory Notes,’ and a ‘Treatise on the Practice of the Civil Bill Courts and Courts of Appeal,’ and edited the law reports known as ‘Albeck and Napier's Reports of Cases argued in the King's Bench’ in 1832–4. For many years this volume of reports was the only Irish authority ever referred to in English courts of justice. At this period, too, Napier delivered lectures on the common law, which attracted much attention both in Dublin and London, and was busy establishing a law institute. At the Lent assizes of 1843, held in Monaghan, he was engaged for the defence in the criminal trial of the Queen v. Samuel Gray, when he was refused permission to challenge one of the jurors. A verdict of guilty was returned, but Napier sued out a writ of error to the House of Lords, on the ground that the jury had been illegally constituted, and his contention was upheld (Clarke and Finnelly, Reports, vol. ix.) In 1844 he was engaged as counsel for the crown in a second case of writ of error, following the conviction of O'Connell and others for seditious conspiracy arising out of the Clontarf meeting. A brief was sent by O'Connell; but the crown had sent theirs a few hours sooner, a fact publicly regretted by O'Connell. It was the latter who gave Napier the sobriquet of ‘Holy Joe,’ as indicating a feature of his character which specially attracted the notice of contemporaries. In November 1844 Napier received a silk gown from Sir Edward Sugden, lord chancellor of Ireland, and thenceforth there was scarcely a trial of note in which he was not retained. In 1845 one of the most important suits entrusted to him was that of Lord Dungannon v. Smith. Lord Dungannon appealed from the Irish courts to the House of Lords, and Napier's conduct of his case there drew high commendation from Lords Lyndhurst and Brougham. He was subsequently much employed in appeals before the House of Lords.
In 1847 he unsuccessfully contested the representation of his university in parliament, but in 1848 he was returned without a contest. Lord John Russell was then prime minister, and Napier sat on the opposition benches, but he at first declined to identify himself either with Peelites or protectionists. He was constant in his attendance, and spoke whenever he deemed the interests of either protestantism or his country endangered. In his maiden speech, 14 March 1848, he argued in favour of capital punishment. In a speech delivered on 17 March 1848 he opposed the extension of the income-tax to Ireland, since Ireland, he argued, was already sufficiently taxed for the purpose of swelling the revenues of the imperial exchequer. When, on 5 April 1848, the Outgoing Tenants (Ireland) Bill was discussed, he sought to prove, by a comparison between the condition of Ulster and that of the southern and disaffected districts of Ireland, that the misery of the tenant was not due to the land laws or the greed of his landlord, but to the peasant's indolence and fondness for sedition. The efforts of Lord John Russell in the cause of Jewish emancipation Napier strenuously opposed; and he disapproved of opening diplomatic relations with Rome. He attacked the withdrawal of a grant called Ministers' Money—a tax for the support of protestant clergy levied upon the Roman catholics living in certain corporate towns in the south of Ireland. He next opposed the motion, brought forward by Sir Charles Wood, to grant 50,000l. out of the imperial exchequer for the relief of certain poor-law unions in Ireland. He contended that the grant was inadequate, and that the system involved was vicious in principle. A select committee was appointed, largely owing to his action, to inquire into the state of the Irish poor law, and of this committee he was a member. Upon the issue of the report of the committee Lord John Russell introduced the Rate in Aid Bill. Napier opposed the resolution, denying the justice of making the solvent unions bear the defalcations of the insolvent, and censured the government for its persistence in temporary expedients. The speech won a high eulogy from Sir Robert Peel. In 1849 he revised and criticised the various acts to facilitate the sale of encumbered estates in Ireland. The report upon the receivers under the Irish courts of equity was prepared by him, and in the Process and Practice Act he afforded valuable assistance, which was acknowledged by Sir John Romilly [q. v.]; while he prepared and carried through the house the ecclesiastical code, a substantial boon to the Irish protestant church and clergy, which afterwards went by the name of Napier's Ecclesiastical Code. He resisted Lord John Russell's suggestion that the office of lord-lieutenant of Ireland should be abolished, and in 1850 took part in the agitation against the assumption by catholic bishops in England of the titles of their sees.
In March 1852 he was appointed Irish attorney-general in the administration of Lord Derby, and was made a privy councillor. He dedicated himself wholly to his duties, and in November 1852 was entrusted by Lord Derby with the reframing of the land laws of Ireland. His scheme consisted of four bills, a Land Improvement Bill, a Leasing Power Bill, the Tenants' Improvement Compensation Bill, and the Landlord and Tenant Law Amendment Bill, which he introduced on 22 Nov. 1852, in a lucid speech, but none of his measures became law, though most of his suggestions were adopted by later administrations. Upon the defeat of the government in December Napier returned to the opposition benches, and actively aided his party. He had proceeded LL.B. and LL.D. at Dublin in 1851, and on the installation of Lord Derby as chancellor of Oxford on 7 June 1853 he was created D.C.L. there. To the question of legal education he had devoted much attention, and he carried a motion in the house for an address to the crown for a commission of inquiry into the inns of court, which was followed by useful reforms. In February 1856 Napier carried a resolution in favour of the appointment of a minister of justice for the United Kingdom. The dissolution of parliament, however, prevented further steps being taken. In the same session Napier spoke in opposition to the Sunday opening of the museums, and his speech has since been published by the Working Men's Lord's Day Rest Association.
When Lord Derby formed his second administration in February 1858, Napier became lord chancellor of Ireland, although his practice had been confined to common law. Among many letters of congratulation sent him was an address from three hundred clergymen of the church of Ireland, accompanied by a handsomely bound bible. His judgments as chancellor will be found in vols. vii. viii. and ix. of the ‘Irish Chancery Reports;’ a selection was published under his supervision and with his authority by Mr. W. B. Drury. Upon the fall of Lord Derby's government in June 1859 Napier retired. An attempt was then made, with the approval of Lord Palmerston and Lord Campbell, the lord chancellor, to transfer him to the judicial committee of the privy council in London; but it was found that the Act of Parliament under which the committee was constituted did not provide for the admission of ex-judges of Ireland or Scotland.
Thereupon Napier, who was thus without professional employment, travelled on the continent, spending the autumn and winter of 1860 in the Tyrol and Italy. On his return he mainly devoted himself to evangelical religious work, but he incurred much adverse criticism by abandoning his early attitude of hostility to any scheme of national education which should exclude the perusal of the scriptures from the protestant schools in Ireland. He had come to the conclusion that state aid was essential to any good system of education, and that no state aid could be expected unless the bible were omitted from the curriculum. He was vice-president and an eloquent advocate of the Church Missionary Society, and one of his best speeches (delivered at Exeter Hall on 30 April 1861) was in favour of the admission of the bible into the government schools of India. He also wrote pamphlets on the current topics of the day, penned the preface to John Nash Griffin's ‘Seven Answers to the Seven Essays and Reviews,’ and lectured on Edmund Burke and other eminent Irishmen to the Dublin Young Men's Christian Association, and published two volumes of lectures on Butler's ‘Analogy’ (1862–4). When the Social Science Association met at Liverpool in 1858, and at Dublin in 1861, Napier was on each occasion chosen president of the section of jurisprudence. He was unable to attend the earlier meeting, and his address on ‘Jurisprudence and Amendment of the Law’ was read by Lord John Russell. He was a constant attendant at the Church Congress until 1868, when the subject of his paper was ‘How to increase the Efficiency of Church Service.’ Many of his suggestions have since been adopted. In 1864 he was appointed a member of a royal commission for considering the forms of subscriptions and declarations of assent required from the clergy of the churches of England and Ireland. The commissioners issued their report in February of the following year. The ‘declaration of assent’ now made by priests and deacons is substantially the one drafted by Napier and submitted to his brother commissioners. At the close of the commission Dean Milman, in ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ declared that subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles was objectionable, and that the only subscription required was that to the Book of Common Prayer. These views Napier tried to refute in a lucid pamphlet published in 1865.
In the summer of 1866 Lord Derby formed his third administration, but Napier was passed over, and Francis Blackburne [q. v.] became lord chancellor of Ireland. Napier had made some enemies by his change of opinion on the church education question, and they had successfully urged that a slight deafness from which he had long suffered incapacitated him for the office. He, however, accepted Lord Derby's offer of the lord justiceship of appeal, rendered vacant by Blackburne's promotion. But the appointment excited hostile comment, and Napier retired so as not to embarrass the government. On 26 March 1867 he received the dignity of a baronetcy.
Napier was looked upon in England as the special champion of the Irish church, and both by speaking and writing he endeavoured to avert its disestablishment. From 1867 to his death he was vice-chancellor of Dublin University, and he summed up the case against Fawcett's proposal to throw open the endowments of Trinity College to all creeds (June 1867). In the same month he was appointed one of the twenty-six members of the ritual commission, and was constant in his attendance at the meetings. All the reports of the commission were signed by Napier, but the third and fourth with protests.
On 28 March 1868 Napier was recalled by Disraeli to professional life by his nomination to a vacancy in the judicial committee of the privy council (sitting at Westminster) caused by the death of Lord Kingsdown. For six years he was frequent in his attendance on the committee, and his judgments are reported in ‘Moore's Privy Council Cases’ (new ser. vol. v. seq.) Appeals from the admiralty and from the supreme courts of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Hong-Kong, and the Cape of Good Hope were the cases which chiefly fell within his province, and he sat in judgment on the three notorious ecclesiastical suits, the Bishop of Capetown v. the Bishop of Natal, Martin v. Mackonochie, and Sheppard v. Bennett.
Upon the disestablishment of the Irish church Napier took an active part in its reconstruction. He helped largely in the revision of the prayer-book, opposing the introduction of any material alterations. During the parliament of 1870, Disraeli frequently consulted him on Mr. Gladstone's Irish land legislation. About this time a controversy arose with regard to the constitution of the university of Dublin, and its relation to Trinity College, and the matter was referred to Napier as vice-chancellor. The results of his investigation appeared in his tract, entitled ‘The College and the University,’ which were warmly approved by Lord Cairns, the chancellor of the university.
In 1874, when Disraeli once more became prime minister, the great seal of Ireland was put in commission, with Sir Joseph as chief commissioner, while the new lord chancellor, Ball, was detained in the House of Commons. The death of Napier's eldest son (3 Dec. 1874) impaired his health, and at the close of 1878 he was attacked by paralysis. In January 1881 he resigned his seat on the judicial committee of the privy council. From Merrion Square, where he had long dwelt, he had removed after 1874 to South Kensington. In 1880 he retired to St. Leonard's-on-Sea, and there he died on 9 Dec. 1882, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. He was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. There are tablets to his memory in the mortuary chapel of the cemetery and in St. Patrick's Cathedral. His coat of arms is in a memorial window in the hall of Gray's Inn. He was rightly described after his death as an indubitable type of the protestantism of the North of Ireland in its best form. But he inherited a full share of the indomitable energy and talent of his Scottish ancestry. The extreme views which he had adopted in religion and politics in his youth were modified in his later years by a spirit of toleration which rendered him popular even with his opponents.
In 1828 he married Charity, the second daughter of John Grace of Dublin, a descendant of the ancient family of the Graces of Courtstown, Kilkenny. They had two sons and three daughters. While at South Kensington he and Lady Napier erected a Napier ward in the Brompton Hospital, in memory of their elder son, and through life he was a generous contributor to church and other charities.
Among his publications not already mentioned were many separate addresses, and an ‘Essay on the Communion Service of the Church of England and Ireland.’ His ‘Lectures, Essays, and Letters,’ with an introduction by his daughter, appeared in 1888. A portrait is prefixed to the latter volume, and a second portrait, in his robes as lord chancellor, is given in his life by Ewald.
[Life of Sir Joseph Napier, Bart., Ex-Lord Chancellor of Ireland, from his private Correspondence, by Alex. Charles Ewald, F.S.A., 1887 (another edition, 1892); Dublin University Mag. xli. 300; Times, 12 Dec. 1882; Hist. of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland from 1186 to 1874, by Oliver J. Burke, A.B.T.C.D., Barrister-at-law; Law Times; Burke's Baronetage.]