Verney, John (16991741), judge
by A. A. Hanham
© Oxford University Press 2004–14
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Verney, John (16991741), judge, was born at Brasted in Kent on 23 October 1699, the fifth son of George Verney, twelfth Baron Willoughby de Broke (16611728), of Compton Verney, Warwickshire, and his wife, Margaret (d. 1729), the daughter and heir of Sir John Heath (16141691) of Brasted, Kent. He matriculated at New College, Oxford, in 1714, but the need to provide for himself, being a younger son in an impoverished aristocratic family, led him towards a career in law, and accordingly the following year he was admitted a student at the Middle Temple. He received his call to the bar ex gratia in 1721, and was soon seeking to improve his range of contacts and clients through entry into parliament. At the general election the next year he obtained a borough seat at Downton, Wiltshire, through the offices of his brother-in-law Anthony Duncombe (later first Baron Feversham).
Following his family's politics Verney initially featured in the Commons as a tory, speaking against Sir Robert Walpole's ministry in January 1724. His tory connections were extended in significant new directions when on 16 September that year he married Abigail (d. 1760), the only daughter of (the auditor) of Eywood, Herefordshire, whose brother had been Queen Anne's lord treasurer, Robert Harley, earl of Oxford. The marriage produced a son and a daughter. The political views of his in-laws, however, were not enough to prevent him from taking the vocationally more advantageous step of joining ranks with the government's whig supporters, a transition which he successfully accomplished by January 1726. Walpole, finding in him a quick and willing spokesman for the government, appointed him in November to a junior position on the Welsh bench as second justice on the Brecon circuit.
Thus, still in his mid-twenties, Verney was widely regarded as a rising figure in his profession; one acquaintance, commenting at this time on his immense industry, wrote that he was so immersed in the law that it is impossible to get a word about anything else out of him (BL, Add. MS 70400). In July 1727 he was made a king's counsel, and in the year following became a bencher at Lincoln's Inn. At the general election in the summer of 1727 he engaged in a tough campaign at Radnor, formerly an electoral stronghold of his Harley in-laws, and within his judicial province. Despite support from the duke of Chandos, who was steward of the local manors, he was defeated but was returned once more at Downton. He continued to cut a prominent figure on the government side in the Commons, though not always with aplomb; on one occasion he very ridiculously exposed his ignorance of fiscal matters and was lashed by the City MP Sir John Barnard (Portland MSS, 8.458). In May 1729 he was included in a clutch of appointments to the royal household, accepting the post of attorney-general to Queen Caroline, which he held until her death in 1737. He resigned from the Welsh bench in May 1732 owing to ill health, but in December 1733 resumed his career by taking office as chief justice of Chester with a salary of £730. He chose not to stand again at the election the following year.
Verney's strong public-spiritedness is indicated by the senior role he assumed during these years in such bodies as the commission for building new churches in London, Dr Radcliffe's trust, and the corporation for the sons of the clergy. Eager for further advancement, he lost no time in applying to Lord Chancellor Hardwicke for the mastership of the rolls upon the death of its aged incumbent, Sir Joseph Jekyll, on 19 August 1738, claiming that this had been the summit of his ambitions for some time. Verney was not Hardwicke's immediate choice, however, but when the post was turned down by the solicitor-general, John Strange, the appointment of Verney was decided before the month had closed. Formally taking office on 9 October, he was sworn of the privy council on 12 October. Within a few years, however, Verney's performance of his duties had become badly hindered by worsening attacks of gout, and prolonged absences from chancery proceedings compelled him early in 1741 to offer Hardwicke his resignation. He was re-elected to parliament for Downton at the May election as part of his plan to pursue a less arduous public career, but his death, universally regretted, occurred on 5 August before a successor at the rolls could be found. He was buried near his seat at Compton Verney, Warwickshire. His only son, John, succeeded his father's elder brother in 1752 as the fourteenth Baron Willoughby. Verney was survived by his wife.
A. A. HANHAM
Foss, Judges, 8.1767 · HoP, Commons, 171554, 1.381; 2.4512, 4956 · W. R. Williams, The history of the great sessions in Wales, 15421830 (privately printed, Brecon, 1899), 46 · Sainty, King's counsel, 92 · GEC, Peerage, new edn, 12/2.695, 697 · Sainty, Judges, 151 · BL, Add. MS 35586, fols. 73, 87, 329 · John Wainwright to second earl of Oxford, 15 Feb 1726, BL, Add. MS 70400 [unfoliated] · will, 1741, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/711/215 · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · The manuscripts of his grace the duke of Portland, 10 vols., HMC, 29 (18911931), vol. 8
Ramsay, portrait, Compton Verney, Warwickshire · G. Vertue, line engraving (after A. Ramsay), BM, NPG · oils, Middle Temple, London
Wealth at death
estates at Compton and Brasted; rectory, parsonage, and other lands at Otford, Kent: will, 1741, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/711/215