Williams, John (1777-1846) (DNB00)

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WILLIAMS, Sir JOHN (1777–1846), judge, was baptised on 10 Feb. 1877 at Bunbury, Cheshire, of which parish his father, William Williams (d. 29 Oct. 1813), who is said to have belonged to an ancient Welsh family in Merionethshire, was vicar. His mother, Ester [sic] Richardson of Beeston in the same county, was married to his father on 25 Jan. 1776 (Earwaker's East Cheshire, ii. 394). John, who was an only son, received his early education at the Manchester grammar school, where he entered 26 June 1787 (School Register, ii. 157). He displayed in youth an aptitude for classical studies which distinguished him through life. In 1794 he proceeded as an exhibitioner to Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. in 1798, and he was elected fellow of Trinity, proceeding M.A. in 1801.

Meanwhile, on 29 Oct. 1797, he entered himself at the Inner Temple, where he was called to the bar in 1804 (Inner Temple Register). His name appears in the law list of 1805 as ‘of King's Bench Walk, Temple,’ with the additional description in the following year of ‘Northern Circuit, Lancaster and Chester Sessions.’ His choice of the northern circuit as a field of practice, and his attaching himself to the liberal party in politics, were considered ‘bold steps’ at the time, professional competition being keen in the northern courts, and prospect of promotion small among opponents of the government. Williams, however, acquired at once popular favour as an advocate and reputation as a lawyer among his fellows. ‘The late justice Sir John Bayley has been heard to declare,’ says a writer in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (November 1846), ‘that if he had to be tried for his life, he should desire to be defended by Mr. Williams.’

It was for the part he took in the proceedings attending the trial of Queen Caroline in 1820, as junior counsel in the case, that Williams is best remembered. The ability he displayed on that occasion, especially in the cross-examination of the important witness Demont, won the emphatic approbation of his leaders, Lord Denman and Lord Brougham (Denman, Life, i. 164; Brougham, Life, ii. 386).

On 23 March 1822, at a by-election, Williams (described in the return as ‘of Lincoln's Inn’) was elected to parliament by the city of Lincoln, and sat for that constituency till the dissolution in 1826. He subsequently represented Winchilsea from 1830 till the disfranchisement of that borough in 1832. In parliament he was a frequent speaker, but his efforts were directed chiefly towards legal reform, and especially towards a correction of delays and abuses in the court of chancery, and he was the author of motions on the subject (4 June 1823 and 24 Feb. 1824), which led to important debates, but to no effective result beyond the appointment of a commission which never reported (Hansard, new ser. vols. ix. x. xiii.).

His course of political conduct brought him into conflict with Lord Eldon, and was prejudicial to his professional advancement; but when the whigs joined Canning in office in 1827, Williams became king's counsel; and on the accession of William IV (1830) he was made solicitor-general and attorney-general to Queen Adelaide, in the place of Lords Brougham and Denman, promoted to the offices of lord chancellor and lord chief justice respectively. On 28 Feb. 1834 he was appointed a baron of the exchequer; but, having sat in that court one term, he was knighted (16 April) and transferred to the king's bench in the place of Sir James Parke (afterwards Baron Wensleydale) [q. v.] In this office he remained till his death.

Williams died suddenly at his seat, Livermore Park, Suffolk, on 15 Sept. 1846, and was buried in the Temple Church on the 23rd of the same month. He married Harriett Katherine, only surviving daughter and heiress of Davies Davenport of Capethorne, the friend and patron of his father. There was no issue. His widow died at St. Germain-en-Laye on 28 Sept. 1861 (Gent. Mag. 1861, ii. 574).

As a judge Williams was painstaking and conscientious, and appeared to special advantage in criminal cases. Throughout his life he retained his taste for the classics, and his reported speeches are never without some classical allusion or quotation. He displayed talents as a writer, and contributed several articles to the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ particularly one (October 1821) on the Greek orators. He also wrote occasionally for the ‘Law Review.’

In personal appearance Williams was not prepossessing. He was diminutive of stature and severe of countenance, but was urbane in manner.

[Law Review, November 1846 (notice said to be by Lord Brougham); Law Mag. February 1847; Gent. Mag. November 1846; Foss's Hist. of Judges, ix. 314; Manchester School Reg. (Chetham Soc.).]

J. H.