John George Witt

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"A Sporting Lawyer"
Witt QC as caricatured by Spy (Leslie Ward) in Vanity Fair, March 1898

John George Witt (24 September 1836, Denny Abbey, Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire – 7 February 1906, London) was an English barrister.

Life[edit]

John George Witt was the second son of James Maling Witt (1799 - 1870), a prosperous Cambridgeshire farmer and barrister.

He was taught at home by a governess and then attended Eton College, where he was a King's Scholar, 'Keeper of the Wall' and 'Captain of the School,' and founded 'College Pop.' He went from Eton to King's College, Cambridge, where he was a Fellow from 1859, won the 'Hulsean Prize' in 1860, played football for the University against Oxford, and obtained his B.A. in 1860 and his M.A. in 1863.[1]

Called to the Bar in 1864, he became a Special Pleader on the South-Eastern Circuit. In 1888 he married Emily Anne Taylor, daughter of James Taylor, Esq.[1] He was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1892, and was elected a Bencher of Lincoln's Inn in 1895. He was caricatured by 'Spy' as 'A Sporting Lawyer' in Vanity Fair in 1898. His recreations were recorded as football, cricket, hunting and driving.

From 1879 to 1894 he edited the Law Journal. His books dealt with disparate subjects: the law, the history of Christian doctrine, and (in Three Villages) the local history of villages in which he had successively lived: Waterbeach; Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire; and, latterly, Finchampstead in Berkshire.

John George Witt died on 7 February 1906, 'in an omnibus in the Strand, on his way to the Law Courts.'

Works[edit]

  • The Mutual Influence of the Christian Doctrine and the School of Alexandria, 1862
  • Then and Now, 1897
  • Life in the Law, 1900
  • Three Villages

Obituaries[edit]

Witt's sudden death, the inquest, and his funeral were reported as follows:

From The Times of 10 February 1906;

'Deaths.

Witt - On Wednesday, 7 Feb., suddenly, John George Witt, Esqre., K.C., Bencher of Lincoln's Inn.'

From The Times of 8 February 1906:

'Supreme Court Of Judicature.

Court Of Appeal.

(Before Lord Justice Vaughan Williams, Lord Justice Stirling, and Lord Justice Moulton.)

The Death Of Mr Witt, K.C.

The first case in the list in this Court to-day was "Clelland v. Rae," the arguments in which were begun yesterday and were to have continued this morning. Mr J.G. Witt, K.C., the leading counsel for the appellant, was arguing the appeal yesterday when the Court adjourned, and his argument was not concluded. Before their Lordships took their seats to-day the intelligence was brought to the Court that Mr Witt had suddenly been seized with a serious illness on his way to the Courts, and there was a report that he had succumbed to the attack.

When their Lordships came into Court Master Coleridge informed the Court of what was reported to have happened, and thereupon

Mr Montague Lush, K.C. (who appeared with Mr Edmondson for the respondent), rose to apply to their Lordships in the matter, and immediately his rising,

Lord Justice Vaughan Williams said, - Mr Lush, without entering into any discussion, we think it proper to adjourn the hearing of this case.

The appeal was accordingly adjourned.

Later in the day, after the mid-day adjournment,

Lord Justice Vaughan Williams said, - When we adjourned the part-heard case this morning we did not at that time know that Mr Witt, who was the friend of so many of us, no longer lived, but we thought that he had been overtaken by a sudden seizure in the street, and was very seriously ill. We did not know that he was actually dead. We heard it shortly afterwards, and I wish to take this opportunity of saying a few words of Mr Witt. Of his career at Eton and Cambridge I have no personal knowledge myself. But I have personal knowledge of Mr Witt during his career at the Bar. I am quite sure that every member of the Bar who knew him, and every member of the South-Eastern Circuit, to which Mr Witt belonged, looked upon him as a good friend and as a man who in every department of life, and particularly in his career as a barrister, was perfectly straight, perfectly to be trusted, and a good friend of every one of us.

Mr Cox-Sinclair said that, as by accident he happened to be the senior member of the Bar present, perhaps their Lordships would allow him to associate the Bar with what Lord Justice Vaughan Williams had said with reference to the late Mr Witt. They at the bar had lost one of the kindest of friends and the most chivalrous of men, and they felt that in every way the Bar, and the administration of justice, had sustained a severe loss.'

From The Times of 8 February 1906:

'Obituary.

Mr John George Witt, K.C., died suddenly yesterday morning in an omnibus, on his way to his chambers in King's Bench-walk. The death occurred whilst the omnibus was passing the Gaiety Theatre, at about 10.30, and Mr Witt was conveyed to King's College Hospital, where his death was attributed to heart failure. Both as a junior and as a "silk" Mr Witt enjoyed a considerable practice, and he was in particular request in cases connected with horses and sport, being himself a thorough sportsman. The son of Mr James Witt, of Swaffham Priory [sic], Cambridgeshire, and a barrister of Lincoln's Inn, Mr J.G. Witt was born in September, 1836, and was educated as a colleger at Eton, and became subsequently a Fellow of King's. He was seventh in the First Class of the Classical Tripos in 1860, and in the same year obtained the Hulsean Prize. He was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in January, 1864, and in 1879, in succession to Mr Francis Towers Streeten, was appointed Common Law Editor of the Law Journal Reports, a post which he held for about 15 years. In 1892 he became a Q.C., and three years later, in succession to Sir James Bacon, was elected a Bencher of Lincoln's Inn. He was the author of "The Mutual Influence of the Christian Doctrine and the School of Alexandria," and a work entitled "Then and Now," published in 1897. Mr Witt married Emily Anne, daughter of Mr James Taylor.'

From The Times of 9 February 1906:

'Inquest. - At the Westminster Coroner's Court, yesterday, Mr John Troutbeck held an inquest on the death of Mr John George Witt, K.C., who died in an omnibus in the Strand on Wednesday. Henry Collins, of 1, King's Bench-walk, Temple, Mr Witt's clerk, gave evidence of identification, and said Mr Witt was 69 years of age. He rented a flat in Conduit-street, W., his country residence being Bridge-end, Finchampstead, Berks. The witness had known him for between 25 and 26 years. His general health was good, but he had little complaints at times - nothing, however, to prevent him practising. Frederick Watt, a conductor in the service of the London General Omnibus Company, stated that on Wednesday morning, at 10.13, Mr Witt got on his omnibus in Piccadilly. At the Gaiety Theatre Mr Witt was the only inside passenger, and the witness noticed that he was leaning forward on his arm. A little further on the witness noticed that his face was white and blue, and on the advice of a policeman he had him driven to King's College Hospital. He died before he got there. Dr. Robert Trevor said death was due to sudden syncope, brought about by the diseased condition of the blood vessels of the heart. The jury returned a verdict of death from natural causes.'

From the Reading Mercury of 10 February 1906:

'Sudden Death Of Mr Witt, K.C. - Mr John George Witt, K.C., died suddenly on Wednesday morning in an omnibus, on his way to his chambers in King's Bench Walk. Mr Witt was conveyed to King's College Hospital, where his death was attributed to heart failure. He was in his 68th year. Both as a junior and as a "silk" Mr Witt enjoyed a considerable practice, and he was in particular request in cases connected with horses and sport, being himself a thorough sportsman. He was educated as a colleger at Eton, and became subsequently a Fellow of King's. He was seventh in the First Class of the Classical Tripos in 1860, and in the same year obtained the Hulsean Prize. He was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1864. He was the author of "The Mutual Influence of the Christian Doctrine and the School of Alexandria," and a work entitled "Then and Now."'

From The Law Journal of 10 February 1906:

'Obituary.

Mr J.G. Witt, K.C.

We regret to record the death of Mr J.G. Witt, K.C., which took place suddenly on Wednesday morning while he was travelling in an omnibus on his way to the Royal Courts of Justice. It occurred while the omnibus was passing the Gaiety Theatre, at about 10.30, and Mr Witt was conveyed to King's College Hospital, where his death was attributed to heart failure. Mr John George Witt, who was descended from the famous De Witts of Holland [the veracity of this statement is doubted], was the second son of Mr James M. Witt, of Swaffham Priory [sic], and was born at Denny Abbey, Cambridgeshire, in 1836. He was educated at Eton, where he attained the position of Captain, and at King's College, Cambridge, where he had a distinguished career. He was seventh in the First Class of the Classical Tripos in 1860, won the Hulsean Prize with an essay on 'The Mutual Influence of the Christian Doctrine and the School of Alexandria,' and became a Fellow of the College. A pupil of Thomas Chitty and of Lord Hannen, he was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1864, and joined the South Eastern Circuit. As a junior he enjoyed a large and varied practice, and as a leader, though he never reached the first rank, he continued to bear a wide reputation as a skilful advocate. Mr Witt, who was a Bencher of Lincoln's Inn, was appointed a Q.C. in 1892. One of his most intimate friends at the Bar was Mr Benjamin, who appointed him an executor of his will. For some fifteen years he was editor of the 'Law Journal Reports.' In 1899 he published a little volume to which he gave the title of 'Then and Now.' It is marked by much biblical and historical learning, among the subjects dealt with in its eight chapters being 'Christmas Day,' 'Lady Day and Michaelmas Day,' 'Sacred Numbers and the Ark,' 'Genesis,' and 'Mercy and Sacrifice.' Mr Witt married, in 1888, Emily Anne, daughter of Mr James Taylor. - In the Court of Appeal, where Mr Witt was to have appeared in a part-heard case on Wednesday morning, Lord Justice Vaughan Williams said: 'When we adjourned the part-heard case this morning we did not at that time know that Mr Witt, who was the friend of so many of us, no longer lived, but we thought that he had been overtaken by a sudden seizure in the street, and was very seriously ill. We did not know that he was actually dead. We heard it shortly afterwards, and I wish to take this opportunity of saying a few words of Mr Witt. Of his career at Eton and Cambridge I have no personal knowledge myself. But I have personal knowledge of Mr Witt during his career at the Bar. I am quite sure that every member of the Bar who knew him, and every member of the South-Eastern Circuit, to which Mr Witt belonged, looked upon him as a good friend and as a man who in every department of life, and particularly in his career as a barrister, was perfectly straight, perfectly to be trusted, and a good friend of every one of us. - Mr Cox-Sinclair said that, as by accident he happened to be the senior member of the Bar present, perhaps their Lordships would allow him to associate the Bar with what Lord Justice Vaughan Williams had said with reference to the late Mr Witt. They at the Bar had lost one of the kindest of friends and the most chivalrous of men, and they felt that in every way the Bar and the administration of justice had sustained a severe loss.'

From The Solicitors' Journal of 10 February 1906:

'Obituary.

Mr J.G. Witt, K.C.

Mr John George Witt, K.C., died very suddenly on Wednesday morning in an omnibus while on his way to the courts. He left his town house in Conduit-street apparently in his usual health, but when opposite the Gaiety theatre the conductor noticed that Mr Witt began to sway forward, and as he was in imminent danger of collapsing on the floor, the man ran forward and placed him at full length on the seat. Then he instructed the driver to proceed at full speed to King's College Hospital. On arriving there, the doctors were able to certify at once that Mr Witt was dead. He was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, of which he was subsequently a fellow. He was called to the bar in 1864, and joined the South-Eastern Circuit. He obtained a considerable practice, and in 1892 was made a Queen's Counsel. Mr Witt was for many years common law editor of the Law Journal Reports. His practice had largely to do with horses and sport, to which he was greatly attached. He had a great fund of anecdotes, almost exclusively legal or sporting. After the luncheon interval on Wednesday Lord Justice Vaughan Williams, addressing the bar, said that when they adjourned the part-heard appeal that morning of Clelland v. Rae the court did not know that Mr Witt, K.C., no longer lived. He was quite sure that every one at the bar who knew him and every member of the South-Eastern Circuit would always think of him as a good friend and a man who in every department of life, and particularly in his career as a barrister, was always perfectly straight and perfectly to be trusted. He would be remembered as a good friend by all of them.'

From The Law Journal of 17 February 1906:

'Miscellany.

The funeral of Mr Witt, K.C., took place on Tuesday afternoon at Finchampstead, Berkshire. The South-Eastern Circuit sent a handsome wreath, and similar tributes came from old Etonian and Cambridge friends. The members of the Bar who attended the funeral included Mr Ernest de Witt (brother), Mr Arnold Statham, Mr Stanley Melville, Mr Gilbert Metcalfe, Mr A.P. Poley, Mr J.A. Slater, Mr H.H. Stephen-Croft, and several members of the Pegasus Club, of which Mr Witt was a prominent member.'

From The Law Journal of 17 February 1906:

'Miscellany.

Mr Justice Kennedy, in his charge to the grand jury at Hertford on 8 February, referred to the death of Mr Witt, K.C., and deplored the loss the circuit had sustained. Only last Sunday he had sat in Lincoln's Inn Chapel next to Mr Witt, whom he had known intimately for many years, having been, like him, educated at Eton and afterwards a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge. His loss would be deeply deplored by his many friends at the Bar, and especially by the members of the circuit to which he was so strongly attached, and on which he had attained such an honourable and prominent position.'

One of Witt's passions was support for the Confederate States of America and he was appointed in 1864 to succeed Henry Hotze as Editor of 'The Index,' a pro-Confederate propaganda newspaper published in London. After the Confederacy's end, Witt came to know well both President Jefferson Davis and Judah Philip Benjamin. Witt was an executor of the latter's Will after his death in 1884.

In Witt's book, 'Life in the Law,' there is a chapter entitled 'America,' in which there appears an interesting description of a visit to Eton College by Witt, Davis and Benjamin in June, 1869. It reads as follows:

'Mr Jefferson Davis came to England after his release from prison, and some time before the Attorney-General of the United States had entered a nolle prosequi, dated 6 February 1869, in his prosecution. Mr Davis was a delightful man of the most simple manners, and it is worthy of remark that, like Mr Eustis, he spoke with an English accent. He and Mr Benjamin went with me one summer day to Eton College where we had lunch with Provost Goodford, and after a look at Windsor Castle drove to the river-side inn, the Bells of Ouseley, to tea. Mr Davis walked about the old-fashioned room adorned with prints of race-horses and coaches. No man could be more delighted. "I have read," said he, "heard and dreamed of such a room in such an inn in England, but never hoped to visit one," and I am sure that he enjoyed the tea and bread and butter and boiled eggs more than any dinner ever set before him. "Now," said Mr Benjamin, "this is the first time he has laughed since the fall of Fort Sumter." If any American will visit the College Library at Eton he will find the signatures of Mr Davis and Mr Benjamin in the Visitors' Book, and I am proud to think that my signature is bracketed with them. We also visited the Island of Runymede, where King John signed Magna Charta. We were all affected by the genius loci, and Mr Davis lingered on the island, recalling that here the barons had won these liberties which are the rich inheritance of our race.'

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Witt, John George (WT856JG)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.