The Times/1921/Obituary/John Fletcher Moulton
Death of Lord Moulton
Lawyer and Man of Science
Lord Moulton was found dead in bed yesterday at his residence in Onslow-square. He was at work in the House of Lords on Tuesday and kept appointments afterwards, and when he returned home he was in his ordinary health.
Lord Moulton was a man of striking and even extraordinary ability yet it can hardly be said that he was, or would ever have become, a great Judge. In the first place he was not primarily a lawyer, and among his varied tastes and acquirements law did not, perhaps, hold the first place. In mathematics or physical science he might have made a European reputation, or if he had reached the Bench at an earlier age he might have take a foremost rank among Judges.
John Fletcher Moulton, who was born on November 18, 1844, was the third son of the Rev. James Egan Moulton, a Wesleyan minister. Educated at New Kingswood School, a great Wesleyan institution, Moulton went to St. John's College, Cambridge, and was Senior Wrangler and First Smith's Prizeman in 1868. Soon after taking his degree he was elected Fellow and lecturer of Christ's, and he stayed at Cambridge for about three years.
In 1868 he had entered the Middle Temple but he was not called until November, 1874. He joined the South-Eastern Circuit, and it was not long before he gained a substantial practice. In course of time he specialized in patent cases. In 1885 he took silk, and his practice grew to dimensions probably unparalleled except in the palmy days of the Parliamentary Bar. In heavy patent actions, usually finding their way to the House of Lords, is services were indispensable. He won and held his way in spite of his unpopularity with the Bench and, so some extent, with his brethren of the Bar. The extreme subtlety of his intellect, perhaps, gave the impression of a want of candour. He profited, of course, by his scientific knowledge, and he was in no small degree an expert as well as an advocate.
Probably the most important cause in which Moulton was engaged was the arbitration held before Sir Edward Fry and two lay arbitrators in connexion with the acquisition of the water undertakings in London and its neighbourhood. Moulton was the advocate of the newly constituted Water Board. The inquiry was protracted, and in the highest degree complicated; and perhaps none but a trained mathematician could have mastered the figures and details involved. It was said that Moulton's fees amounted to £40,000.
The closing days of his forensic career were clouded by an unhappy family dispute. In 1875 Moulton had married the widow of Mr. R. W. Thomson, of Edinburgh. She had two sons and two daughters, and she had an income of between £2,000 and £3,000. The whole family lived in harmony and affection until the death of Mrs. Moulton in July, 1888. By her will she made her husband sole trustee of her estate, and left a fund in the income of which was to be paid in equal shares to the two daughters, the younger son, and to her husband. The elder son was otherwise provided for and had ceased to live with the rest of the family for some years before the mother's death. Each share amounted to about £620 a year. The family lived in great affection and happiness until Moulton's second marriage to a daughter of Major Davis, of Naples, in 1901. The elder daughter had in the meantime married Mr. Kenneth Grahame. In 1902 the daughter asked for an account of the income to which she and her sister were entitled under their mother's will, and after a time brought an action for that purpose against their stepfather. The latter alleged an agreement made soon after Mrs. Moulton's death by which the whole family was to live together and it was arranged that the daughter's contribution to the expenses should be their share of the revenue. This the daughters denied, and it is clear that no businesslike or formal compact was ever made. Mr. Justice Joyce ordered the account and inquiry which the daughters demanded, but also held that the moneys probed to have been expended by him for the daughter's benefit, and directed also that a reasonable allowance should be made out of the stepdaughters' income for their maintenance in the defendant's house since their mother's death. Against the latter part of this judgment of the Court, the plaintiffs appealed and the Master of the Rolls (Lord Collins) gave teh judgment of the Court, the other members of which were Lord Justices Romer and Cozens-Hardy, allowing the appeal.
It was expected that the learned Judge—he was in January, 1906, appointed Lord Justice in succession to Sir James Mathew—would appeal to the House of Lords—but it is hardly a matter for regret that the country was spared the spectacle of a Lord Justice appearing as a litigant in a painful family dispute. Unfortunately an attempt was made to create a party capital out of the story, and a grossly inaccurate version appeared in one of the monthly reviews, in respect of which proceedings were taken and judgment given against the offenders.
Moulton did not sit long in Parliament. His first candidature was in November, 1885, when he was returned as a Liberal for Clapham. Next year he lost his seat. In July, 1892, he was beaten for South Nottingham. He sat for South Hackney in 1894. In the General Election, however, he found a resting-place in the Launceston Division of Cornwall, for which he was returned at a by-election in August, 1898, by a majority of more than 1,000 over his Liberal Unionist opponent, Sir F. Wills. He retained the seat by almost the same majority in 1900. His principal services in the House were in connexion with the Patent Legislation of 1900-1905.
On the Bench, Moulton exhibited the qualities of rapidity, apprehension, and extreme subtlety of mind which he had shown at the Bar. But he was too discursive and over prone to interrupt counsel during the argument. Personally, he was a man of great charm and geniality, His interests were wide, and he was an excellent talker and also a good listener. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society before he took silk.
In 1912 he was appointed a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary on the resignation of Lord Robson. He brought to the House of Lords, which he diligently attended, a store of scientific and judicial experience and learning which greatly strengthened that tribunal.
Services During the War.
But his conspicuous public service came with the war. Soon after its outbreak he was appointed Director-General of Explosive Supplies in the Ministry of Munitions. In that capacity he had not only to control the production of propellants like cordite, high explosives like T.N.T., and even tungsten, but also had to solve the not less difficult problems involved in finding the raw materials necessary to manufacture. He was assiduous in his attendance at the Munitions headquarters in London, where he had a staff of some 700 under him, and in spite of his advanced years did not spare himself in making frequent night journeys of inspection to the most remote parts of the country. At an early period in the war he came to the conclusion that in view of enormous expenditure of high explosives by the enemy the supplies of picric acid and trinitrotoluol that could be obtained from the raw materials available would be quite insufficient. He therefore urged the immediate adoption of mixed explosives, and pressed forward experiments with the mixing of trinitrotoluol and ammonium nitrate until amatol was produced equal, if not superior, to the single substances. The policy he advocated met with objections in some quarters, but finally he prevailed and obtained full authority to make any form and kin of explosive that could be produced in the country. It then became possible for us to insist that certain of our Allies, who were largely dependent on our production, should also economize by the adoption of ammonium nitrate mixtures. His influence on chemical industry in this country did not cease with the war. He was, for instance, active in connexion with the establishment of the dye industry, and acted as chairman of the British Dyestuffs Corporation for a time after its formation in 1919.
Lord Moulton leaves one son by his first marriage, the Hon. Hugh Lawrence Fletcher Moulton, who is a member of the Bar and who is engaged largely in patent work.