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Montagu, Basillocked

  • V. Markham Lester

Basil Montagu (1770–1851)

by unknown artist

private collection. Photograph: Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Montagu, Basil (1770–1851), author and legal reformer, was born on 24 April 1770, the acknowledged son of John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich (1718–1792), and his mistress, Martha Ray (d. 1779). The latter, the daughter of a stay maker, was a talented singer, who was murdered in 1779 by James Hackman. Montagu was brought up in his father's house at Hinchingbrooke, Huntingdonshire. He was educated at Charterhouse School and at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1786 and graduated BA (sixth wrangler) in 1790 and MA in 1793. Montagu was admitted a member of Gray's Inn, London, on 30 January 1789 but continued to live in Cambridge. On 4 September 1790 he married Caroline Matilda Want (d. 1793) of Brampton, Huntingdonshire. This improvident marriage antagonized his father, who seems at that point to have stopped subsidizing him. It may have contributed to his impecuniosity during the 1790s, which culminated in this future authority on bankruptcy being threatened in 1798 with imprisonment for debt. In 1795, having been deprived in chancery of the inheritance from his father, he went to London to read law; he was called to the bar on 19 May 1798.

Montagu first travelled on the Norfolk circuit. He was not an eminent pleader but acquired an extensive practice in chancery and bankruptcy. His second marriage, in Glasgow on 6 September 1801, was to Laura Rush (d. 1806), eldest daughter of Sir William Beaumaris Rush of Roydon, Suffolk, and Wimbledon, Surrey. Like his first wife she died in childbirth. In 1808 Montagu married his housekeeper and children's governess, Anna Dorothea Bridget Skepper (1773/4–1856), widow of Thomas Skepper, a lawyer in York, and daughter of Edward Benson, a York wine merchant. Montagu thereby became the stepfather of Anne Benson Skepper, who married the poet Bryan Waller Procter and became a gifted literary socialite and whose own daughter, Adelaide Ann Procter, was also to become a poet. Edward Irving gave Montagu's third wife the sobriquet 'noble lady', and she is remembered in the correspondence of both Burns and Carlyle. Montagu had one son, Basil, with his first wife (mentioned in Wordsworth's 'To my Sister' and 'Anecdotes for Fathers', where he is called Edward), three sons with his second (one of whom, Algernon Sidney Montagu, became a judge in Australia), and two sons and a daughter with his third.

Montagu's writings on bankruptcy date from his four-volume Digest of Bankruptcy Laws, compiled between 1805 and 1807. On the strength of this work, which ran into several editions, Lord Erskine appointed him a commissioner in bankruptcy in 1806. For the next twenty-five years Montagu dedicated himself to the reform of bankruptcy administration. During this period he published numerous books and pamphlets on the subject. In 1825, when a major bankruptcy reform was being debated in parliament, Montagu attacked the delay and expense involved in the existing bankruptcy procedure in his timely Inquires Respecting the Courts of Commissioners of Bankrupts, and Lord Chancellor's Court. In July of the same year he suggested reforms of the system before the chancery commission. Although Montagu's Inquires contained few original suggestions, it did provide a handy collection of previous proposals for reform.

Montagu, a close friend of the law reformer Samuel Romilly, actively participated in other efforts to reform the law. In 1809, along with the Quaker philanthropist William Allen and others, he formed the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge upon the Punishment of Death and the Improvement of Prison Discipline (re-established in 1829 as the Society for the Diffusion of Information on the Subject of Capital Punishments). As part of this effort he wrote The Opinion of Different Authors upon the Punishment of Death (1813). Montagu also served in 1816 with Allen, James Mill, David Ricardo, and John Herbert Koe on the committee for investigating the causes for the alarming increase of juvenile delinquency in the metropolis. Later in the same year the committee published its report, in the fourth volume of Allen's periodical, The Philanthropist.

In 1835 Montagu was made a king's counsel, and soon afterwards he became accountant-general in bankruptcy. During his tenure, which lasted until 1846, he successfully convinced the Bank of England to pay interest on bankruptcy deposits which, until then, had never been paid. In 1837, with the assistance of Scrope Ayrton, he published The Law and Practice in Bankruptcy as Altered by the New Statutes, Orders, and Decisions. In co-operation with others, Montagu also published several series of bankruptcy case reports between 1830 and 1845.

Montagu is remembered for his close associations with some of the leading literary figures of his day. He came to know Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his undergraduate years; and after settling in London in 1795 he formed friendships with a number of intellectuals, including Charles Lamb, Henry Crabb Robinson, Robert Southey, Samuel Parr, and William Wordsworth. It was during this period that Montagu became one of the earliest pupils of William Godwin, and he was so impressed with Godwin's Political Justice that he temporarily gave up his legal studies. He toured the midland counties with Godwin in the autumn of 1797. Although Montagu later distanced himself from Godwin's teachings, he continued to be a regular visitor to Godwin's home and was present at the death of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Wordsworth, however, had the more lasting influence on Montagu. He lived with Montagu in Lincoln's Inn from February to August 1795, and Montagu's early papers on geometry probably stimulated Wordsworth's interest in mathematics. In an unpublished autobiography located at Grasmere, Montagu refers to his meeting Wordsworth as 'the most fortunate event of my life'. As evidence of their friendship, upon the death of Montagu's first wife in 1793 Wordsworth and his wife undertook the care of Montagu's young son during his infancy. Two years later Wordsworth lent Montagu £300, later increased to £400, secured by an annuity, the principal of which was not repaid until 1814. Montagu's acquaintance with Wordsworth and Coleridge is perhaps best remembered for the role he played in the estrangement of the two poets in 1810. According to Coleridge's contemporaneous recording of the incident in his notebooks and letters, Montagu claimed that Wordsworth had authorized him to tell Coleridge that Wordsworth had no hope in him and that he was a 'nuisance'. Although what Montagu actually said to Coleridge remains uncertain, the discussion precipitated the two-year estrangement of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth summed up Montagu in 1808 as a very kind, generous, and humane man who was, however, inept in the practical business of life.

Montagu also made the acquaintance of other luminaries such as Thomas Carlyle, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Edward Irving, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. He served as one of Shelley's counsel in the chancery proceedings over the custody of Shelley's children. These acquaintances frequently visited the Montagu home in 25 Bedford Square, London, for, as Robinson relates in his diary, Montagu was fond of playing the patron.

Montagu's own attempt at literary achievement is exemplified best by his 16 volume Works of Francis Bacon, which he edited between 1825 and 1837, assisted by Francis Wrangham and William Page Wood. While at Cambridge he had noticed how little attention the works of Bacon had received, and he set out to publish a complete edition. In 1821 he contributed to the Retrospective Review two articles on Bacon's 'Novum organum'. Montagu's edition of Bacon's works was severely criticized by Thomas Macaulay in the Edinburgh Review in July 1837. Montagu responded in 1841 with the publication of a series of letters to Macaulay.

Montagu published numerous other works on a wide variety of subjects. In the field of law, in addition to works on bankruptcy he wrote on set-off (1801), partnerships (1815), lien (1821), and pleading and equity (1824). He undertook, but never published, a translation of Étienne Dumont's Traités de législation civile et pénale. In addition he wrote more than twenty-five books and pamphlets on other diverse subjects ranging from the effects of fermented liquors, in 1814, to the funerals of Quakers, in 1840. Montagu died at Boulogne on 27 November 1851.


  • GM, 1st ser., 60 (1790), 858
  • GM, 1st ser., 76 (1806), 590
  • GM, 2nd ser., 37 (1852), 410
  • D. Wu, ‘Basil Montagu's manuscripts’, Bodleian Library Record, 14 (1991–4), 246–51
  • The Athenaeum (6 Dec 1851), 1282
  • M. C. Crum, ‘Literary work and literary friends of Basil Montagu QC’, BLitt diss., U. Oxf., 1950
  • K. Coburn, ed., The notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 3 (1973)
  • M. Moorman, William Wordsworth, a biography, 2: The later years, 1803–1850 (1965)
  • V. M. Lester, Victorian insolvency: bankruptcy, imprisonment for debt, and company winding-up in nineteenth-century England (1995)
  • N. Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: the radical years (1988)
  • W. Knight, The life of William Wordsworth, 3 vols. (1889)
  • Collected letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs, 3 (1959)
  • C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: his friends and contemporaries, 2 vols. (1876)
  • Memoirs of the life of the Right Honourable Sir James Mackintosh, ed. R. J. Mackintosh, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1836)
  • J. Wells, ed., Four letters to Anna and Basil Montagu (1995)


  • BL, considerations on the removal of Jewish disabilities, Add. MS 20041
  • CUL, papers relating to edition of works of Francis Bacon
  • NMM, letters to fourth earl of Sandwich relating to his education
  • University of Bristol, Pinney MSS
  • Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere


  • Opie, portrait; formerly in possession of Bryan Walter Proctor, 1894; lent to the third Loan exhibition, No. 183
  • portrait, priv. coll. [see illus.]
Gentleman's Magazine