Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Plumer, Thomas

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PLUMER, Sir THOMAS (1753–1824), master of the rolls, born on 10 Oct. 1753, was the eldest son of Thomas Plumer, of Lilling Hall, in the parish of Sheriff-Hutton in the North Riding of Yorkshire, some time a wine merchant in London, by his wife Anne, daughter of John Thompson of Kirby, Yorkshire. He was educated at Eton and University College, Oxford, where he matriculated on 10 June 1771. While at the university he acquired the reputation of being ‘one of the best scholars among the undergraduates’ (Maurice, Memoirs of the Author of Indian Antiquities, 1819–22, pt. ii. p. 25). He graduated B.A. in 1775, M.A. in 1778, and B.C.L. in 1783, was elected Vinerian scholar in 1777, and in June 1780 became a fellow of his college. Plumer entered Lincoln's Inn on 6 April 1769, and was admitted to chambers in No. 23 Old Buildings in July 1775. While pursuing his legal studies Plumer attended Sir James Eyre [q. v.] on his circuits, and frequently assisted him by taking down the evidence at the trials over which he presided. Having been called to the bar on 7 Feb. 1778, Plumer joined the Oxford and South Wales circuits, and in 1781 was appointed one of the commissioners of bankrupts.

In 1783 he was employed in the defence of Sir Thomas Rumbold [q. v.] at the bar of the House of Commons. The ability which he showed on this occasion led to his being retained in 1787 as one of the three counsel to defend Warren Hastings, his coadjutors being Edward Law (afterwards Baron Ellenborough, lord chief justice of England) and Robert Dallas (afterwards lord chief justice of the common pleas). On 23 Feb. 1792, and the four succeeding court days, Plumer made an elaborate and lucid speech in defence of Hastings with reference to the first article of the impeachment (Bond, Speeches of the Managers and Counsel in the Trial of Warren Hastings, 1860, vol. ii. pp. xliv, 685–946), and on 25 April 1793 he commenced his summing up of the evidence given on the part of the defendant on the second article, which occupied four days (ib. vol. iii. pp. xx, 295–496). Plumer was appointed a king's counsel on 7 Feb. 1793 (London Gazette, 1793, p. 107), and was elected a bencher of Lincoln's Inn in the Easter term following. In May 1796 he defended John Reeves, charged with publishing a seditious libel (Howell, State Trials, xxvi. 529–96), and in May 1798 James O'Coigley, Arthur O'Connor, and others, charged with high treason (ib. xxvi. 1191–1432, xxvii. 1–254). He was one of the counsel for the crown at the trial of Governor Wall for murder in January 1802 (ib. xxviii. 51–178), and at the trial of Edward Marcus Despard for high treason in February 1803 (ib. xxviii. 345–528). On 25 March 1805 he was appointed second justice on the North Wales circuit, and in 1806 successfully defended Lord Melville on his impeachment by the House of Commons, obtaining an acquittal for his client on all the charges preferred against him after a trial which lasted fifteen days (ib. xxix. 549–1482). In the same year he assisted Eldon and Perceval in the defence of the Princess of Wales against the charges brought against her, and in preparing the famous letter to the king of 2 Oct. 1806 in answer to the report of the ‘Delicate Investigation.’

On the formation of the Duke of Portland's administration in the spring of 1807, Plumer was appointed solicitor-general. He was sworn into office on 11 April, and was knighted on the 15th (London Gazette, 1807, p. 497). At a by-election in May he was returned to the House of Commons for Downton, which he continued to represent until his promotion to the bench in 1813. He appears to have spoken for the first time in the House on 22 Feb. 1808 (Parl. Debates, 1st ser. x. 698), and on 11 March following he upheld the ‘justice, policy, and legality’ of the orders in council (ib. x. 1073). On 13 March 1809 he opposed the address to the crown with regard to the conduct of the Duke of York (ib. xiii. 415–20). During a debate on the criminal law in February 1810 Plumer declared that he was attached to the existing system of law, and ‘extremely jealous in his views of any new theories’ (ib. xv. 373), and in June following he opposed Grattan's motion to refer the Roman catholic petitions to a committee, being convinced that such a measure could ‘lead to no practical good, but to much litigation and mischief’ (ib. xvii. 274–94). He succeeded Sir Vicary Gibbs as attorney-general on 26 June 1812. In the spring of 1813 he opposed two of Romilly's measures for the amelioration of the criminal law, insisting that the severity of the existing laws was necessary for the security of the state (ib. xxv. 369–70, 582). He was appointed the first vice-chancellor of England on 10 April 1813, under the provisions of 53 George III, cap. 24, and was sworn a member of the privy council at Carlton House on 20 May following (London Gazette, 1813, i. 965). ‘A worse appointment,’ says Sir Samuel Romilly, ‘than that of Plumer to be vice-chancellor could hardly have been made. He knows nothing of the law of real property, nothing of the law of bankruptcy, and nothing of the doctrines peculiar to courts of equity’ (Memoirs of Sir Samuel Romilly, 1840, iii. 102). Through Plumer's exertions a grant was obtained from the treasury, by which a building appropriated to the use of the vice-chancellor was erected in Lincoln's Inn. After presiding as vice-chancellor of England for nearly five years, he was promoted to the post of master of the rolls, in succession to Sir William Grant, on 7 Jan. 1818 (London Gazette, 1818, i. 77). He died at the Rolls House in Chancery Lane on 24 March 1824, aged 70, and was buried in the Rolls Chapel on 1 April following.

Plumer was an able pleader, a learned lawyer, but a heavy and prolix speaker. He was for several years one of the leaders on the Oxford circuit, and he had a large practice in the court of exchequer. He was a great authority on tithe questions, and he was ‘perhaps better acquainted with the law as applied to elections than any other person in the kingdom’ (Wilson, Biogr. Index to the House of Commons, 1808, p. 193). He does not appear to have taken any part in the numerous prosecutions instituted by Sir Vicary Gibbs while attorney-general, except in the ‘Independent Whig’ case, when he addressed the House of Lords in support of the sentence pronounced by the king's bench against Hart and White (Howell, State Trials, xxx. 1337–46). As a judge he was distinguished by the courtesy of his demeanour and the length of his judgments. ‘Plumer,’ says Romilly, ‘has great anxiety to do the duties of his office to the satisfaction of every one, and most beneficially for the suitors; but they are duties which he is wholly incapable of discharging’ (Memoirs of Sir Samuel Romilly, iii. 325). His judgments, ‘though sneered at by some old chancery practitioners when they were delivered, are now,’ says Campbell, ‘read by the student with much profit, and are considered of high authority’ (Lives of the Lord Chancellors, 1857, ix. 357–8). They are to be found for the most part in the ‘Reports’ of Maddock, George Cooper, John Wilson, Swanston, Jacob and Walker, Jacob and Turner, and Russell.

Plumer for some years held the post of king's serjeant in the duchy of Lancaster. He was a trustee of the British Museum, and a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries. He served as treasurer of Lincoln's Inn in 1800.

A portrait of Plumer, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, is in the possession of Mrs. Hall Plumer, the widow of a grandson. It has been engraved by H. Robinson.

Two of Plumer's speeches were printed: one on behalf of the directors against Fox's East India Bill in ‘The Case of the East India Company as stated and proved at the Bar of the House of Lords on the 15 and 16 Days of December, 1783,’ London, 1784, 8vo, and the other delivered in 1807 at the bar of the House of Lords in support of the petition of the West India planters and merchants against the second reading of the bill for the abolition of the slave trade, London, 1807, 8vo.

Plumer married, on 27 Aug. 1794, Marianne, eldest daughter of John Turton of Sugnall, near Eccleshall, Staffordshire, by whom he had five sons and two daughters. His widow died on 26 Nov. 1857 at Canons in the parish of Stanmore Parva, Middlesex, an estate which Plumer had purchased in 1811. One of his granddaughters became the wife of Sir Harry Smith Parkes [q. v.]

[Foss's Judges of England, 1864, ix. 32–6; Jerdan's National Portrait Gallery, 1830–4, vol. iii.; Walpole's Life of Spencer Perceval, 1874, i. 202–6; Twiss's Life of Lord Eldon, 1844, ii. 23–8, 240–3, 301; John Bell's Thoughts on the Proposed Alteration in the Court of Chancery, 1830, pp. 3–5; Shaw's History of Staffordshire, 1798, i. 133; Georgian Era, 1833, ii. 545–6; Law and Lawyers, 1840, ii. 84–5; Gent. Mag. 1794 pt. ii. p. 766, 1824 pt. i. p. 640, 1858 pt. i. p. 114; Ann. Reg. 1824, appendix to Chron. p. 217; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886, iii. 1123; Lincoln's Inn Registers; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xii. 87, 214–15; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 250, 266; Haydn's Book of Dignities, 1890; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.