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).

Dobson, Sir Denis Williamlocked

  • Arthur Green

Dobson, Sir Denis William (1908–1995), lawyer and civil servant, was born at Shortlands, Graham Park Road, Gosforth, Northumberland, on 17 October 1908, the son of William Gordon Dobson, shipbuilder, and his wife, Laura Janet, née Muskett. He was educated at Charterhouse School (1922–6) and at Trinity College, Cambridge (1926–30), where he took a first class in part one of the law tripos and in the LLB examination. He was admitted a solicitor in 1933 after being articled in Newcastle upon Tyne. He then moved to London and joined a firm in the City, but after what he was later to call 'a mutually disenchanting year' (The Times, 16 Dec 1995) joined a firm of parliamentary agents, where he laid the foundations of his skill as a draftsman. On 4 December 1934 he married Thelma (b. 1906/7), daughter of Charles Curry Swinburne, engineer and brassfounder, of Newcastle upon Tyne. They had a son and a daughter.

During the Second World War, Dobson served in the Royal Air Force, including three years with the desert air force (1942–5), first with the Eighth Army in north Africa and later in Malta and Italy. His drive and energy were already recognizable and by the end of his service he was senior personnel staff officer. He was appointed OBE in 1945. Following demobilization he had hoped to join the legal branch of the Foreign Office but he was excluded on medical grounds, having contracted tuberculosis. Instead he joined the statutory publications office, which came under the Treasury. His skills there were recognized by Sir Thomas Barnes, the Treasury solicitor, who introduced him to Sir Albert Napier, who wished to strengthen the small legal staff of the Lord Chancellor's Office. Dobson joined the office in 1947. In the same year his first marriage was dissolved and on 29 December 1948 he married Mary Elizabeth, daughter of Captain Joseph Alexander Allen, RAF officer, of Haywards Heath, Sussex; they had two sons and a daughter.

Dobson was soon recognized as a future contender for the post of permanent secretary of the Lord Chancellor's Office, and was advised to qualify as a barrister. He was called to the bar by the Middle Temple in 1951. In 1954 Napier was succeeded by Sir George Coldstream as permanent secretary, and Dobson became deputy clerk of the crown in Chancery and assistant permanent secretary to the lord chancellor. Coldstream retired in 1968 and, at the relatively late age of sixty, Dobson succeeded him as clerk of the crown in Chancery and permanent secretary. In the same year he was made a bencher of the Middle Temple. He took silk as a QC in 1971. He was promoted KCB in 1969, having been made CB in 1959.

On joining the Lord Chancellor's Office, Dobson had at first a keen interest in both law reform and legislation, and became a master of every detail of bills with which the lord chancellor was concerned. His earlier experience with parliamentary agents and the statutory publications office gave him extra confidence to challenge parliamentary counsel and departmental lawyers on aspects of bills for which other ministers were responsible. There were many expert and acrimonious exchanges, and his opening form of address to opponents, 'Now look here, X', became legendary across Whitehall.

By 1969 Dobson's outlook had become conservative. It was in that year that the royal commission chaired by Lord Beeching on assizes and quarter sessions reported. Both the Labour and the subsequent Conservative government adopted its radical conclusions. These included the establishment of a single crown court with jurisdiction to sit wherever it was needed, and the creation under the lord chancellor of a unified, full-time court service to run the new system. The effect was to transform the small Lord Chancellor's Office, largely concerned with advising the lord chancellor, into a major government department. Dobson had reservations about these reforms, and was generally believed to have held back several lord chancellors from making desirable changes in other areas.

Dobson retired as permanent secretary of the Lord Chancellor's Office in 1977. He served as a member of the Advisory Council on Public Records from then until 1983. As a civil servant he had been memorable for his forceful vigour, the speed of his intelligence, and his command of the law, but also for his quick temper, and his distrust of change. Policy issues were less attractive to him than the law itself, and there were those who felt that the best outlet for his talents would have been as an outstanding parliamentary draftsman. He died of heart failure on 15 December 1995 at the Charing Cross Hospital, Fulham, London; he was survived by his wife Mary and their three children, and by the two children of his first marriage.


  • The Independent (20 Dec 1995)
  • The Times (16 Dec 1995)
  • WWW, 1991–5
  • private information (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.


  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at Death

under £145,000: probate, 13 June 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales