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Bigham, John Charles, first Viscount Merseyfree

(1840–1929)
  • Hugh Mooney

Bigham, John Charles, first Viscount Mersey (1840–1929), judge, was born on 3 August 1840, the second son of John Bigham, a Liverpool merchant, and his wife, Helen, daughter of John East, also of Liverpool. After being educated at the Liverpool Institute, Bigham went to London University where he matriculated but did not graduate, continuing his education in Paris and Berlin. In 1870 he was called to the bar by the Middle Temple and joined the northern circuit.

Times were prosperous and there was plenty of work for barristers both in the north of England and in London. Bigham, learned, industrious, and self-confident, obtained a large share of the commercial business in Liverpool, where his local connections helped, and also at Westminster. On 17 August 1871 he married Georgina Sarah Rogers (d. 1925), the daughter of a Liverpool man named John Rogers. They had three sons, the first being born in 1872.

Having private means and ambition, Bigham became queen's counsel (1883) after only twelve years as a junior. His practice prospered: although he did not have great physical presence, being short and soft-spoken, he nevertheless developed great powers of advocacy. Slow and concise in speech, he was a skilful cross-examiner and his statements were lucid. Unlike many learned lawyers, he was as successful in addressing a jury as he was in arguing a point of law before a judge. He became pre-eminent as a commercial lawyer because of the familiarity with business methods implied by his family background. When the commercial court was established in 1895, he and the king's bencher Joseph Walton (1845–1910) divided virtually all of the important commercial cases between them for the next two years. Bigham's concision made him a particularly congenial advocate from the point of view of James Charles Mathew (1830–1908), the first judge to preside over the court, who was renowned for the speed of his judgments. During his last decade at the bar Bigham's practice was enormous, and he was one of the richest lawyers in his circle.

In November 1885 Bigham stood unsuccessfully for parliament as Liberal candidate for the Toxteth division of Liverpool, and he was again defeated in July 1892 when he stood for the Exchange division of Liverpool. In 1895 he was elected for Exchange as a Liberal Unionist. He made little impact in the House of Commons. One of his few interventions in debate was in support of a bill which became the Liverpool Court of Passage Act (1896), and he was also a member of the committee of inquiry into the Jameson raid of 29 December 1895 in South Africa.

In 1897 five judgeships of the Queen's Bench Division became vacant either by death or retirement, and Bigham was appointed by the lord chancellor, Lord Halsbury, to succeed Sir Lewis William Cave, a choice of which the bar approved. Bigham was immediately put on the rota of judges in charge of the commercial list, and often presided in the court where he had made a name for himself as an advocate.

As a judge Bigham disliked tedious arguments and was full of robust common sense, which often led him to take short cuts or to force the parties into a settlement. But his judicial worth was recognized by appointments to preside over the court of the railway and canal commission (1904), to act as bankruptcy judge and to assist the Court of Appeal and the Chancery Division. In 1902, after the South African War, he was also made a member, along with Lord Alverstone, the lord chief justice, and Major-General Sir John Ardagh, of a royal commission for the revision of martial law sentences.

Bigham's judgments, particularly of criminal cases, were not immune from criticism. In 1902 a Wiltshire woman, charged with the ill treatment of a child, appeared before him at the Old Bailey. The jury acquitted her on the more serious charges, so Bigham imposed a fine of £50, which was criticized as unduly lenient. In January 1904 Bigham tried Whitaker Wright (1845–1904) for company fraud. The law officers had declined to prosecute, but Bigham's handling of the private prosecution was said to have helped to secure conviction. The counsel for the defence complained of Bigham's unjudicial hostility to the defendant.

In 1909 Bigham was appointed to succeed Sir Gorell Barnes (afterwards Lord Gorell) as president of the Probate, Divorce, and Admiralty Division, which still preserved a tradition of dignity and austerity, but Bigham brought the spirit of the commercial court to the trial of matrimonial cases. Giving evidence before the divorce commissioners in 1910, he said he did not regard divorce from a religious point of view at all. He found divorce work uncongenial, but was completely at home with the Admiralty business. His tenure as president was short: in March 1910 he retired for health reasons. He had been a judge for less than fifteen years, but was given a pension because of his 'permanent infirmity', and was raised to the peerage as Baron Mersey of Toxteth in the county of Lancaster.

Over the next twenty years Mersey did much voluntary public and judicial work. As a peer who had held high judicial office he heard appeals in the House of Lords, and he sat regularly on the judicial committee of the privy council. In 1912 he was appointed commissioner to inquire into the sinking of the RMS Titanic. In this connection, a recent work (1998) characterized his court persona as 'autocratic, impatient and not a little testy', but noted the 'surprising objectivity' of the inquiry's findings (D. A. Butler, 193). In 1913 he presided over the international conference on safety of life at sea; and in 1914 he held the court of inquiry in Canada on the loss of the RMS Empress of Ireland. After the outbreak of war in 1914 the prize court was established, and he was invited to preside over the board of the judicial committee which heard prize court appeals and he continued to do so during the first two years of the war. The cases of the Roumanian (1916, as to the right to seize enemy property on land) and the Odessa (1916, as to the claims of pledgees of cargo seized as prize) were among those dealt with by him. In 1915, as wreck commissioner, he inquired into the destruction of the RMS Falaba and the RMS Lusitania. He has been implicated in conspiracy theorists' claims of a cover-up over the sinking of the latter: this remains highly conjectural, though the conclusion of the inquiry (which blamed Germany for the tragedy without reservation) was without doubt politically convenient.

Mersey was created a viscount in 1916. Increasing deafness hampered his ability to discharge his judicial duties, but in 1921, when there were heavy arrears in the divorce court, he helped to clear the lists with all his old efficiency.

Mersey was said to have been good company and enjoyed entertaining and being entertained. He was devoted to the Middle Temple, and in his extreme old age continued to dine with the benchers despite physical infirmities, perhaps through loneliness after his wife's death in 1925. He died at the Beach Hotel, Littlehampton, Sussex, on 3 September 1929 and was succeeded in the viscountcy by his eldest son, Charles Clive Bigham.

Sources

  • The Times (4 Sept 1929)
  • Law Journal (7 Sept 1929)
  • D. A. Butler, ‘Unsinkable’: the full story of RMS Titanic (1998)
  • R. D. Ballard, Exploring the Lusitania (1995)
  • J. Butler, The liberal party and the Jameson raid (1968)

Likenesses

  • H. T. Glazebrook, portrait, exh. RA 1904
  • Spy [L. Ward], chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (3 Feb 1898)
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, NPG
  • portrait, repro. in ILN, 110 (1897), 174
  • portrait, repro. in ILN, 111 (1897), 561

Wealth at Death

£80,603 6s. 2d.: resworn probate, 19 Oct 1929, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)