Charles Russell, baron Russell of Killowen - Encyclopedia

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CHARLES RUSSELL, BARON RUSSELL OF KILLOWEN (1832-1900), lord chief justice of England, was born at Newry, county Down, on the 10th of November 1832. He was the elder son of Arthur Russell, a Roman Catholic gentleman, who was engaged in commerce and brewing in Newry. Educated first at Belfast, afterwards in Newry, and finally at St Vincent's College, Castleknock, Dublin, in 1849, he was articled to a firm of solicitors in Newry. In 1854 he was admitted, and began to practise his profession. Disturbances between Roman Catholics and Orangemen were at that time prevalent in this part of Ireland, and in the legal proceedings which ensued at quarter and petty sessions young Russell distinguished himself as a bold and skilful advocate in the cause of his co-religionists. The political zeal which always formed an important element in Russell's character happily harmonized with these professional duties. After practising, however, for two years, he determined to seek a wider field for his abilities, and to become a barrister in England. It was a wise ambition, early conceived by young Russell, stimulated by his present success, and encouraged by the counsel of at least one competent adviser, Judge Jones, who was much impressed by Russell's ability in the conduct of a case at the Newry quarter sessions. He believed, moreover, that to succeed at the Irish bar he would have (to use his own phrase) to "swallow his convictions." With this end in view Russell, whilst still practising and residing in Belfast, became a student of Trinity College, Dublin. He matriculated there in 1855, and passed examinations from time to time, but did not wait to become a graduate. In 1856 he went to London and became a student of Lincoln's Inn. In 1858 he married, in Belfast, Ellen, the eldest daughter of Dr Mulholland, a physician of distinction in that city. In 1859 he was called to the bar, after gaining by examination a first-class honour certificate, and joined the Northern Circuit. Except some valuable introductions to friends in London and Liverpool, which his uncle, the president of Maynooth, had given to him, Russell brought to the work of his profession no external aids. He had to rely upon himself. But the equipment was sufficient. A well-built frame; a strong, striking face, with broad forehead, keen grey eyes, and a full and sensitive mouth; a voice which, though not musical, was rich, and responded well to strong emotions, whether of indignation, or scorn, or pity; an amazing power of concentrating thought; an intellectual grasp, promptly seizing the real points of the most entangled case, and rejecting all that was secondary, or petty, or irrelevant; a faculty of lucid and forcible expression, which, without literary ornateness or grace of style, could on fit occasions rise to impassioned eloquence - all these things Russell had. But beyond and above all these was his immense personality, an embodiment of energetic will which riveted attention, dominated his audience, and bore down opposition. His successful advocacy in the Colin Campbell divorce case in 1886, and his famous cross-examination of hostile witnesses and still more famous speech before the Parnell Commission in 1888, afforded perhaps the best examples of Russell's characteristic powers. He was not a learned lawyer in the sense in which Willes, or Mellish, or Blackburn were learned lawyers; he did not possess the fine legal acumen of his great contemporary, Herschell; but he had a sufficient apprehension of legal principles. He handled a point of law with telling directness and force. His argument as the leading counsel for Great Britain in the Bering Sea Arbitration in 1893, and his address at Saratoga Springs on International Law and International Arbitration in August 1896, were expositions of law in its practical application to matters of state which the most learned jurist must admire for their thoroughness and perspicuity.

Russell's success, after he joined the Northern Circuit, did not, of course, come to him at once. For some time his work in court was principally in the Court of Passage at Liverpool, which he regularly attended from London. He wrote a book on its procedure, which was published in 1862. This ancient local court, possessing both common law and Admiralty jurisdiction, had as its presiding judge - then styled "assessor"- an eminent leader of the Northern Circuit, Mr Edward James. Substantial commercial cases were tried there, and of these Russell soon had a goodly portion. Steadily, and, for a barrister, speedily, Russell's fortune grew. His biographer, Mr Barry O'Brien, has given, in The Life of Lord Russell of Killowen (1901), an account of Russell's fees, which shows that they were, in round figures: in 1859, £117; in 1862, £1016; in 1866, £2367; and in 1870, £4230. At the beginning of this period Russell wrote occasionally for the newspapers, and especially for the Irish press. From early boyhood onwards he maintained a keen interest in politics, and pre-eminently in the public affairs of Ireland. In 1859 he published a pamphlet entitled The Catholic Workhouse, and an article from his pen is to be found in The Dublin Review, vol. xlviii. p. 497. His legal work was not wholly confined to the north of England. He was employed at the Guildhall and elsewhere by solicitors of position in the City of London. He was one of the counsel engaged in the Windham lunacy case in 1861, and in the action of Saurin v. Starr in 1869. In 1865 he argued in ex parte Chavasse before Lord Westbury, L.C., and soon afterwards was honoured by him with the offer of a county court judgeship.

In 1872 Russell took "silk," and from that date for some time he divided the best leading work of the circuit with Holker, Herschell and Pope. In 1874 Holker became solicitorgeneral in the Conservative administration. In 1880 Herschell accepted the same office in a Liberal ministry, and about the same time Pope practically left the circuit, to become in a short time one of the most successful advocates at the parliamentary bar. Russell's success as a. Q.C. during this period of his career was prodigious. He excelled in the conduct alike of commercial cases and of those involving, as he used to say, "a human interest," although undoubtedly it was the latter which more attracted him. He was seen to the least advantage in cases which involved technical or scientific detail. If his advocacy suffered a defeat, however, it was never an inglorious defeat. Those who were on the Northern Circuit at the time will not easily forget the case of Dixon v. Plimsoll - a libel action brought by a Liverpool shipowner against Mr S. Plimsoll - tried before Baron Amphlett and a Liverpool special jury, in which Holker won a notable victory for the defendant; or Nuttall v. Wilde, a breach of promise action, in which Pope led brilliantly for the successful plaintiff, and Russell's speech for the defence was one of the finest in point of passion and pathos that was ever heard upon the Northern Circuit. At the same time, with all his fighting power, Russell was eminently a sagacious adviser. No barrister knew better how and when to settle a case, where the client's true interest called for a settlement.

In 1880 a new phase of Russell's arduous life began. He was returned to parliament as an independent Liberal member for Dundalk, a constituency which he had twice before unsuccessfully contested. From that time forward until his appointment to a lordship of appeal in succession to Lord Bowen in 1894, he sat in the House of Commons: for Dundalk until 1885, and afterwards for South Hackney, where he was returned as the Liberal member on four successive occasions - once in 1885, twice in 1886, and again in 1892. The entrance into parliament laid upon Russell's time and labour a heavy additional tax. His was a nature which could not, in work or even in pleasure, be content to do anything lightly or by halves. He was essentially a man of action; intensity - at times almost fierce intensity - both of purpose and of devotion to its fulfilment characterized everything he did. Upon such a man parliamentary life between 1880 and 1894 necessarily entailed a severe strain. During the whole of this epoch, in home affairs, Irish business almost monopolized the political stage; and Russell was Irish to the core. From 1880 to 1886, as a private member, and as the attorney-general in Mr Gladstone's administrations of 1886 and 1892, he worked in and out of parliament for the Liberal policy in regard to the treatment of Ireland as few men except Russell could or would work. He never spared himself. After a long day in the turmoil of the courts, he cheerfully gave a long evening to a distant and often, from the standpoint of personal notoriety, an obscure, platform. His position throughout was clear and consistent. Before 1886 on several occasions he supported the action of the Irish Nationalist party. He opposed coercion, voted for compensation for disturbance, advocated the release of political prisoners and voted for the Maamtrasna inquiry. He wrote to the Daily Telegraph a series of letters on the Irish land question, which were afterwards published (1889) in a collected form. But he never became a member of the Irish Home Rule or of the Parnellite party; he was elected at Dundalk as an independent Liberal, and such he remained. He was proud of the kingdom in whose might and glory Ireland could claim so large a part; and when, as attorney-general in the Gladstone administration, he warmly advocated the establishment of a subordinate parliament in Ireland, he did so because he sought the amelioration and not the destruction of Ireland's relations with the rest of that kingdom. "I am absolutely opposed," he said (The Life of Lord Russell of Killowen, p. 194) to the South Hackney voters, "to separation; but, reserving imperial control on all imperial questions, I think Irishmen on Irish soil should have the power of dealing in the way which seems best to them with all questions that concern them." It is impossible to say that Russell's success in the House of Commons, considerable as it was, was comparable to his success as an advocate in the courts of justice. He was listened to, always with respect and often with admiration, but he was not made for a debater; and the position of a law officer has generally not proved favourable to the attainment of parliamentary eminence. In great public affairs the law officer advises and supports, but not for him is the glory of initiating public policy.

Russell's parliamentary duties, fully as he discharged them, first as a private member and afterwards as attorney-general, were not allowed by him to obstruct his professional career. He rapidly became in London what he was already in Lancashire, the favourite leader in nisi Arius actions. The list of causes celebres in the period 1880-94 is really a record of Russell's cases, and, for a great part, of Russell's victories. The best known of the exceptions from the latter category was the libel action Belt v. Lawes in 1882, which, after a trial before Baron Huddleston and a special jury lasting more than forty days, resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff, for whom Sir Hardinge Giffard (afterwards Lord Chancellor Halsbury) appeared as leading counsel. The triumph of his client in the Colin Campbell divorce suit in 1886 afforded perhaps the most brilliant instance of Russell's forensic capacity in private litigation. His fees in 1885, the year before he became attorneygeneral, amounted to nearly £17,000. More important, however, as well as more famous, than any of his successes in the ordinary courts of law during this period were his performances as an advocate in two public transactions of mark in British history. The first of these in point of date was the Parnell Commission of 1888-90, in which Sir Charles Russell appeared as leading counsel for Mr Parnell. The commission held its first sitting on the 22nd of October 1888, and presented its report in February 1890. In April 1889, after 63 sittings of the commission, in the course of which 340 witnesses had been examined, Sir Charles Russell, who had already destroyed the chief personal charge against Mr Parnell by a brilliant cross-examination, in which he proved it to have been based upon a forgery, made his great opening speech for the defence. It lasted several days, and concluded on the 12th of April. This speech, besides its merit as a wonderful piece of advocacy, possesses permanent value as an historical survey of the Irish question during the last century, from the point of view of an Irish Liberal. It was in the same year published after careful revision by its author (1889). The second public transaction was the Bering Sea Arbitration, held in Paris in 1893. Sir Charles Russell, then attorney-general, with Sir Richard Webster (afterwards Lord Alverstone, L.C.J.), was the leading counsel for Great Britain. Russell, in the course of his very powerful argument before the tribunal, maintained the proposition, which he again handled in his Saratoga address to the American Bar Association in 1896, that "international law is neither more nor less than what civilized nations have agreed shall be binding on one another as international law." The award was, substantially, in favour of Great Britain. In recognition of their distinguished services, the queen bestowed upon both the leading representatives of Great Britain the honour of the grand cross of St Michael and St George.

In 1894 Russell's career as an advocate ended. A judgeship, if he had wished it, had been within his reach twelve years before. In 1894, on the death of Lord Bowen, he accepted the position of a lord of appeal. A month later he was appointed lord chief justice of England in succession to Lord Coleridge, to whose memory he devoted in the following September a paper in the North American Review. To the discharge of his functions as a judge Russell brought with him all the qualities of intellect and character which had made him so eminent as an advocate, and their greatness was not less conspicuous in his new position. Brief as was his tenure of the office, he proved himself well worthy of it. He was dignified without pompousness, quick without being irritable, and masterful without tyranny. He was scrupulously punctual. Suitors and hearers could not but be impressed by the manifest determination of the lord chief justice to get at the truth, and to do so without waste of time. If this was a fault, it was that of excessive zeal for despatch. When, occasionally, there were flashes of impatience, they were elicited by the exhibition, as he deemed it, of want of preparation, or slovenliness, or verbosity on the part of the advocate before him. Even the youngest and most obscure practitioner could always count upon the assiduous attention of the lord chief justice to a pertinent and thoughtful argument. In 1896 Lord Russell (Pollock B. and Hawkins J. being on this occasion his colleagues on the bench) presided at the trial at bar of the leaders of the Jameson Raid. It was a state trial of grave importance. Russell's conduct of it, in the midst of much popular excitement, was by itself sufficient to establish his reputation as a great judge. One other event at least in his career while lord chief justice deserves a record, namely, his share in the Venezuela Arbitration in 1899. Lord Herschell, who had been nominated to act with Lord Justice Collins (afterwards Master of the Rolls), as a British representative on the Commission of Arbitration, of which the distinguished Russian jurist M. Martens was president, died somewhat suddenly in America before the beginning of the proceedings. The lord chief justice accepted the invitation to take the vacant place, and performed his very onerous duty with conspicuous ability.

Nor was it only on the bench or as an international judge that Lord Russell of Killowen sought, during the last years of his busy life; to do service to his country. He signalized his zeal as a law reformer by the public advocacy of radical changes in the system of legal education in the Inns of Court, and by the promotion of measures to put down the vice of secret and illicit commissions in commercial and business life. On the former subject he delivered in 1895 an address in Lincoln's Inn Hall, under the auspices of the Council of Legal Education, which was afterwards printed and published. In 1899, dealing with the latter question, he introduced in the House of Lords a bill, which had its first reading. He again introduced a bill in the session of 1900, which was read a second time, but did not become law. On the 10th of August 1 9 00 the great advocate and great judge passed quietly away at his London residence, after a short illness due to an internal malady.

In private as in public life Russell was always strenuous, and most attracted by things that called for the exercise of activity, whether bodily or intellectual. Inaction he disliked both for himself and in others. Though not an athlete, he took an interest in manly pastimes: he was fond of riding and of breeding horses; he liked being on the racecourse; and he enjoyed games, both of skill and of chance. A student of books he was not; he could lay no claim to wide learning or elegant scholarship; but he could appreciate a good book; he was versed in Shakespeare; and he knew and loved the poetry and the songs of his native land. When he wrote, his style, inornate, clear and forcible, reflected the character of his thought. He was a staunch and sympathetic friend, ever ready, in an unostentatious way, to help, where help was really needed. While he undoubtedly exhibited at times, chiefly during the earlier part of his career, a certain brusqueness and impetuousness of speech and demeanour, those who came into contact with him recognized that such occasional outbursts never sprang from any desire to hurt, or from any unkindness of disposition. In his contests at the bar he never made an enemy. He was a strong man, and he liked to have his way; but he was also large-hearted and without a tinge of rancour in his disposition. He was never offended by opposition. Whilst he did not himself shine as a wit or a humorist in conversation or in after-dinner oratory, he heartily enjoyed fun and humour in others; and, wherever he was, the force and distinctness of his personality never failed to impress his company. Probably no English lawyer ever excited abroad the admiration which was accorded to Lord Russell of Killowen, alike on the continent of Europe and in America. To the United States he paid two visits, the first in 1883 and the second in 1896. On both occasions he won golden opinions, which were manifested in widespread and warm expressions of sympathy and regret when the news of the death of Lord Russell of Killowen passed across the Atlantic. Between 1894 and 1897 Lord Russell of Killowen received the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa from the universities of Dublin, Edinburgh and Cambridge, and from the Laval university, Quebec. In 1892 he was treasurer of Lincoln's Inn. He left surviving him, besides his widow, five sons and four daughters. His sister Katherine (in religion, Sister Mary Baptist Joseph), pioneer sister of mercy in California, had died two years before at San Francisco. (W. R. K.)

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