Wilmot, John Eardley

, a learned lawyer, and lord chief justice of the court of common pleas, was the second son of Robert Wilmot, of Osmaston in the county of Derby, esq. and of Ursula, one of the daughters and coheiresses of sir Samuel Marow, of Berkswell, in the county of Warwick, bart.He was born Aug. 16, 1709, at Derby, where his father then lived, and after having acquired the rudiments | of learning at the free-school in that town, under the Ker, Mr. Blackwell, was placed with the Rev. Mr. Hunter at Lichfield, where he was contemporary with Johnson and Garrick. At an after period of his life it could be remarked that there were then five judges upon the bench who had been 'educated at Lichfield school, viz. Willes, Parker, Noel, Lloyd, and Wilmot. In Jan. 1724, he was removed to Westminster-school, and placed under Dr. Freind; and here, and at Trinity-hall, Cambridge, where he resided until Jan. 1728, he laid the foundation of many friendships, which he preserved through a long life. At the university he contracted a passion for study and retirement that never quitted him, and he was often heard to say, that at this time the height of his ambition was to become a fellow of Trinity- hall, and to pass his life in that learned society. His natural disposition had induced him to give the preference to the church; but his father, who was a man of sagacity as well as of reading, had destined him to the study of the law, which he accordingly prosecuted with much diligence at the Inner Temple, and was called to the fear in June 1732. In 1743 he married Sarah, daughter of Thomas Rivett, of Derby, esq.

We are not acquainted with any interesting particulars of Mr. Wilmot’s life between the period of his leaving the university and his being in a considerable degree of practice as a barrister: but as duty and filial piety, more than inclination, had induced him to embrace the profession of the law, his pursuit after its emoluments was not eager, though his study of it was unremitted. He was regular in his attendance on the terms, but his practice was at this, time chiefly confined to jhe county of Derby, where he was much respected. In town his business was not great; jet in those causes in which he was engaged, his merit, learning, and eloquence, were universally acknowledged, and gained him the esteem and approbation of some of the greatest ornaments of the profession, among whom were sir Dudley Ryder, then attorney-general, and the lord chancellor Hardwicke. In 1753, the chancellor proposed to make him one of his majesty’s counsel, and afterwards king’s serjeant: but both these he declined, chiefly from a disinclination to London business, and a wish, that never left him, of retiring altogether into the country. On this he was so determined that in 1754, he actually made what he called his farewell speech in the court of exchequer, | which he had of late years attended more than any other. Perhaps his disposition was not calculated for forensic disputation, though his profound knowledge and indefatigable labour, as well as ability and penetration, had made him, in the opinion of those who knew him, one of the best lawyers of his time. He had more than one offer of a seat in the House of Commons about this period, bat he uniformly djeclined every temptation of this kind. He had not however long enjoyed his retirement in Derbyshire before he received a summons to town to succeed sir Martin Wright, as judge of the court of King’s Bench. With much persuasion, aided perhaps by the increase of his family, consisting now of five children, he was induced to accept this preferment in February 1755, which was accompanied, as usual, with the honour of knighthood. It is not known to what interest he owed this promotion, and it seems most fair to conclude that a sense of his merit only must have induced his patrons to send to the country for one so resolute on retirement, when so many, at hand, would have been glad to accept the office.

In the autumn of 1756, lord Hardwicke resigned the great seal, which continued for about a year in the hands of three lords commissioners, chief justice Willes, sir S. S. Smythe, and sir John Eardley VVihnot. In March 1757, sir Eardley had a most providential escape from being destroyed at Worcester by the fall of a stack of chimneys through the roof into court. His first clerk was killed at his feet, also the attorney in the cause then trying, two of the jurymen, and some others. Sir Eardley was beginning to sum up the evidence when the catastrophe happened. Sir Eardley continued about nine years longer, as one of the puisne judges of the court of King’s Bench. The King’s Bench was at this time filled with men of distinguished talents, and ic is no small honour to sir Eardley Wilmot that he sat for a long period as the worthy colleague of Mansfield, Dennison, and Foster. Though the part be took was not a very conspicuous one, from his situation on the bench, and from his native modesty, yet his brethren, and those who were acquainted with Westminster-hall at that period, bore testimony that his active mind was always engaged, either in or out of court, in elucidating some obscure point, iii nicely weighing questions of the greatest difficulty, and in contributing his share towards expediting and deciding the important suits then under discussion | nor was he less eminent in that important branch of his judicial office, the administration of the criminal justice 6f the kingdom; and while his pervading mind suffered few crimes to escape detection and punishment, his humanity and compassion were often put to the severest trials.

Among many other parts of this laborious profession, to which sir Eardley had given unremitting attention, is that of taking notes, to which he had invariably accustomed himself both before and after he was called to the bar. These notes were transcribed by his clerk, and he thus by degrees became possessed of many volumes of ms. notes, both in law and equity. The same practice he continued after he was raised to the bench, till he heard that Mr. (afterwards sir James) Burrow intended to publish his notes from the time of lord Mansfields being appointed chief justice; but he uniformly lent Mr. Burrow his papers from this period, and with such short notes as he took himself. We may here mention that the “Notes of Opinions delivered in different courts,” by sir John Eardley Wilmot, vrere published in 1802, 4to, by his son, with a memoir of his life, from which we have extracted the present account.

Although sir Eardley persevered unremittingly in the discharge of his duty, it was not without a frequent sigh for a more quiet and retired station than that of the court of King’s Bench. In 1765, a serious treaty was set on foot by him, to exchange his present office for one, not less honourable indeed, but undoubtedly at that time less lucrative and less conspicuous, that of chief justice of Chester, which was then held by Mr. Morton; but the treaty was at length broken off, and when in the summer of 1766, lord Camden, who had been chief justice of the common pleas about four years, was appointed lord chancellor, sir Eardley was promoted to the chief justiceship in his room. Here, however, as in former instances, his friends had no little trouble in overcoming his repugnance to a more elevated situation. It is believed, that next to his character for learning and integrity, he was indebted for this preferment, to the high opinion and esteem of both the old and new chancellor, and also to the friendship of lord Shelburne, appointed at that time one of the secretaries of state. His lordship, though a much younger man, had ever since his first acquaintance with him, several years before, conceived so great an admiration of his talents; and esteem for his virtues, that he had Jong lived with him | in habits of the greatest intimacy and friendship. In the evening of the day that sir Eardley kissed hands on being appointed chief justice, one of his sons, a youth of seventeen, attended him at his bed-side. “Mow,” said he, “my son, I will tell you a secret worth your knowing and remembering; the elevation I have met with in life, particularly this last instance of it, has not been owing to any superior merit or abilities, but to my humility, to my not having set up myself above others, and to an uniform endeavour to pass through life, void of offence towards God and man.” Sir Eardley was now called to preside in a court where he had many seniors on the bench; but the appointment gave general satisfaction, and his acknowledged abilities, his unaffected modesty and courtesy, soon made him as much esteemed and beloved in his new court, as he had been before in his old one.

In 1768, bishop Warburton, who had the highest opnion of sir Eardley, requested him to become one of the first trustees of his lectureship at Lincoln’s-inn chapel, along with lord Mansfield and Mr. Yorke; and this being complied with, in 1769, sir Eardley requested his assistance and advice on the occasion of one of his sons preparing himself for the church. The bishop complied, and sent him the first part of some “Directions for the study of Theology,” which have since been printed in Warburton’s works, being given to his editor, Dr. Hurd, by the son to whom they were addressed, the late John Eardley Wilmot, esq. Circumstances afterwards induced this son to go into the profession of the law, on which sir Eardley, in 1771, made the following indorsement on the bishop’s paper. “These directions were given me by Dr. Warburton, bishop of Gloucester, for the use of my son, when he proposed to go into orders; but, in the year 1771, he unfortunately preferred the bar to the pulpit, and, instead of lying upon a bed of roses, ambitioned a crown of thorns. Digne puer meliore flamma /” This shews how uniform sir Eardley was, from his earliest youth, in his predilection for the church, a predilection which probably influenced, more or less, every act of his life. It was about this time, viz. 1769, that sir Eardley presided in the memorable cause of Mr. Wilkes against lord Halifax and others, a period of great heat and violence, both in parliament and in the nation; but he was so entirely free from all political bias, that his conduct gave universal satisfaction. It was an action of | trespass for false imprisonment, damages laid at 20,000l.; Mr. Wilkes having been taken up and confined in the Tower, and his papers seized and taken away, by virtue of a general warrant from lord Halifax, one of his majesty’s secretaries of state. Sir Eardley’s speech is published in his Life, and does great credit to his impartiality. The jury gave 4000l. damages.

On the resignation of lord Camden, and the subsequent death of Mr. Yorke, in January 1770, the great seal, with other honours, was offered to sir Eardley by the duke of Graf ton, and was again pressed upon him in the course of that year by lord North, the duke’s successor, but in vain. He was at this time too fixed in his resolution of retiring altogether from public business, and it seemed to him a good opportunity to urge the same reason for resigning the office he held, as for declining the one that was offered him, namely, ill health, which had prevented him occasionally from attending his court. His intention was to have resigned without receiving any pension from the crown; but when his resignation was accepted in 1771, he was much surprised and disconcerted to find, that he was to receive a pension for life. This he withstood in two several interviews with the first lord of the treasury; but his majesty having desired to see him at Buckingham house, was pleased to declare, that he could not suffer so faithful a servant to the public to retire, without receiving this mark of approbation and reward for his exemplary services. After this, sir Eardley thought it would be vanity and affectation to contend any longer; and certainly his private fortune would not have enabled him to live in the manner to which he had been accustomed. But as he was thus liberally provided for by his majesty’s bounty, he thought the least he could do was to make every return in his power; and having the honour of being one of his majesty’s privy council, he, in conjunction with the venerable sir Thomas Parker, who had been chief baron of the exchequer, uniformly attended the appeals to the king in council till 1782, when his increasing infirmities obliged him to give up this last part of what he thought his public duty. Of his infirmities he gives a most affecting proof in a short letter to earl Gower, dated Jan. 12 of that year. “My sight and hearing are extremely impaired; but my memory is so shook, that if I could read a case over twenty times, I could, neither understand nor remember it; and as my | attendance at council would only expose ray infirmities, without being of any service to the public, I cannot think of ever putting my self into such a disagreeable situation.

He now retired totally from public business, and saw very little company during the remainder of his life, except a few friends, whom time had hitherto spared. His retreat from business not only procured him ease and health, but probably lengthened his life. He died Feb. 5, 1792, aged eighty- two. He left his eldest surviving son his sole executor, with express directions, in his own hand-writing, for a plain marble tablet to be put up in the church of Berkswell, in the county of Warwick, with an inscription, containing an account of his birth, death, the dates of his appointments,- 1 and names of his children, “without any other addition whatever.

Sir Eardley’s person was of the middle size: his countenance commanding and dignified; his eye lively, tempered with sweetness and benignity; his knowledge extensive and profound; and perhaps nothing but invincible modesty prevented him from equalling the greatest of his predecessors, and fettered his abilities and learning. Though not fond of the law as a profession, he always declared his partiality for the study of it, and he was also well versed in the civil law; a general scholar, but particularly conversant with those branches which had a near connexion with his legal pursuits, such as history and antiquities, and he was one of the first fellows of the Society of Antiquaries, incorporated in 1750. Tn private life he excelled in all those qualities which render a man respected and beloved.

Genuine and uniform humility was one of his most characterstic virtues. 1

1 Memoirs as above.