Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 11.djvu/185

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Cockburn
Cockburn
179

opportunity of clearing himself, whereupon a day or two afterwards Cockburn withdrew all imputations in court. In 1847 he became a candidate as a liberal reformer for Southampton with Mr. Wilcox. He was elected without a contest, and soon gained the ear of the House of Commons by short speeches on topics of legal reform. The opportunity for distinction soon came. In 1850 the House of Lords passed a vote of censure on the government of Lord John Russell for Lord Palmerston's conduct of the 'Pacifico' dispute with Greece. In the House of Commons Roebuck, member for Sheffield, moved a counter vote of confidence (24 June), and a close division was expected, on which hung the fate of the ministry. Lord Palmerston at first applied to Mr. Crowder, afterwards a justice of the common pleas, to state the points of law for him, and on his refusal committed the task to Cockburn. On the night of 28 June, at the close of the fourth night's debate, Cockburn rose to reply to a long and damaging speech by Mr. Gladstone, and moved the adjournment. He made a fine speech, full of eloquence and sarcasm, and developing the legal argument showed that no redress was obtainable by Don Pacifico in the Greek courts. He proceeded to a general vindication of Lord Palmerston's policy in Naples and Lombardy, and so successfully that, as was said by Sir Robert Peel, who spoke next and for the last time, 'one-half of the treasury benches were left empty, while honourable members ran one after another, tumbling over each other in their haste, to shake hands with the honourable and learned member.' He proceeded to push his success. In the next great debate, not many hours later, he rose and denounced the cruelties practised by the Austrian government upon the Magyar rebels. Accordingly on 12 July he was knighted and made solicitor-general, and when Sir John Romilly was appointed master of the rolls early in 1851 Cockburn succeeded him as attorney-general. He resigned with the rest of the ministry in February 1852, resumed office with them in December, and continued to be Lord Palmerston's attorney-general until November 1856. Meantime he was in the full tide of a prosperous professional career. He conducted the prosecution on behalf of the customs department against the dock companies, and fought before a parliamentary committee the cause of the narrow gauge against Austin and Thesiger, who appeared for the broad gauge system. In June 1852 he led for the defence in Dr. Achilli's libel action against Dr. Newman, which was tried before Lord-chief-justice Campbell. Newman, in his ' Letters on the Present Position of the Catholics in England,' had spoken of Achilli, who had joined the reformed church, as 'a profligate under a cowl' and ' a scandalous friar.' The defence was a plea that the libel was true, and the evidence in support of this plea lasted for four days. In the end a verdict was given for the plaintiff, and the defendant having obtained a rule for a new trial the litigation was brought to an end. Others of his causes celebres were a suit of the Duke of Manchester's at Kingston ; an issue directed by Vice-chancellor Page Wood to be tried at Liverpool in 1855, as to the validity of the will of Mr. R. Gregg Hopwood, which, as executor, the Earl of Sefton propounded ; the great Swynfen will case, in which Mrs. Swynfen, the plaintiff, after repudiating a settlement effected on the first trial by her counsel, Sir F. Thesiger, obtained a new trial, which she won, chiefly through the exertions of Mr. Charles Rann Kennedy [q. v.], her counsel. Cockburn also led the prosecution of William Palmer in the Rugeley poisoning case with Edwin James, Q.C., Bodkin, Welsby, and Huddleston. For the defence were Serjeant Shee, Grove, Q.C., Gray, and Kenealy. The case lasted twelve days at the central criminal court, and turned exclusively upon circumstantial evidence. Though far from being the strongest case, Cockburn elected to have Palmer tried on the indictment in Cook's case, and at the end of the case replied without a single note. Chiefly by his advocacy Palmer was convicted and hanged on 14 June 1856. So thorough was Cockburn in his work that in getting up the evidence he had experimented with and studied poisons to a considerable degree. In 1853 he was elected treasurer of the Middle Temple, and in 1854 was appointed recorder of Bristol. During the Crimean war he proved himself a very efficient debater, and his finished advocacy, aided by his powerful and melodious voice, dignified bearing, and keen humour, made him unrivalled at the bar. At length in 1856, after the death of Sir John Jervis on 2 Nov., Cockburn, though loth to abandon his huge professional income, succeeded him as chief justice of the common pleas, and was sworn of the privy council. ' Sir Alexander Cockburn,' writes Lord Campbell in his journal (Hardcastle, Life of Lord Campbell, ii. 347), ' has frequently declared that he would not acceptany judicial appointment, that he would prefer a political office, and that he would rather remain at the bar without office than become a judge.' His next entry continues : 'As I suspected, Cockburn's abjuration of the bench turns out to be only nolo episcopari. . . . He is a man of great intellectual ability; he is capable of keen,