Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Gurney, Sir Johnlocked

  • J. A. Hamilton
  • , revised by Catherine Pease-Watkin

Gurney, Sir John (1768–1845), judge, was born in London on 14 February 1768, the son of Joseph Gurney (1744–1815) of Walworth, legal and parliamentary stenographer [see under Gurney, Thomas], and his wife, who was the daughter of William Brodie of Mansfield. His grandfather, Thomas Gurney, and his brother, William Brodie Gurney, were also stenographers. He was educated partly at St Paul's School and partly by the Revd Mr Smith of Bottesdale, Suffolk. Through attending debating societies and accompanying his father in his duties in court he also received an informal grounding in the law and decided to become a lawyer. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple on 3 May 1793. On 11 December 1797 he married Maria, daughter of William Hawes MD; they had several children, including Russell Gurney and John Hampden Gurney.

Gurney applied himself to Old Bailey practice and joined the home circuit. He distinguished himself on 24 February 1794, during the absence of his leader, by successfully defending the bookseller Daniel Isaac Eaton in an action for libel. As a result, he was chosen junior counsel for the defence in the state trials of Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke, and John Thelwall in the same year, and in 1796 defended Robert Thomas Crossfield, who was charged with complicity in the Popgun Plot. In 1798 he appeared for Arthur O'Connor and others on the charge of high treason, and summed up their defence.

Being now leader of the Middlesex sessions, and having a good practice at Westminster Hall, Gurney applied for a patent of precedence as a king's counsel, but it was refused him. He did not obtain this status until in 1816 when he won it by his great skill in conducting the prosecution of Lord Cochrane and Cochrane Johnstone, accused of spreading false rumours of Bonaparte's death to make profit in the stock exchange. Against rivals as great as James Scarlett and John Copley he held the first place in the king's bench, and was also leader of the home circuit. In 1820 he conducted the prosecution of two of the Cato Street conspirators, and procured their conviction. On 13 February 1832 he was appointed a baron of the exchequer and knighted. In January 1845 he was compelled by failing health to retire. He died on 1 March 1845 at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In both his private and public life Gurney was much esteemed. He was a good criminal lawyer, though not deeply learned, and was an independent and acute, but severe and somewhat harsh judge. In his early years he was a dissenter, but latterly he attended the services of the Church of England.


  • State trials, 22.27; 30.711, 1341
  • Law Magazine, 34 (1845), 278
  • W. Ballantine, Some experiences of a barrister's life, 1 (1882), 262
  • Life of John, Lord Campbell, lord high chancellor of Great Britain, ed. Mrs Hardcastle, 1 (1881), 221
  • Annual Register (1845)


  • Glamorgan RO, Cardiff, opinion on the criminal law consolidation bill


  • W. Holl, stipple, pubd 1821 (after G. H. Harlow), BM, NPG
  • G. Richmond, group portrait, ink, pencil, and wash, 1840–1845, NPG
  • J. Posselwhite, stipple (after G. Richmond), BM, NPG
  • lithograph, NPG
  • stipple, BM
E. Foss, , 9 vols. (1848–64); repr. (1966)