Richard Bethell, 1st Baron Westbury
|The Right Honourable
The Lord Westbury
26 June 1861 – 7 July 1865
|Prime Minister||The Viscount Palmerston|
|Preceded by||The Lord Campbell|
|Succeeded by||The Lord Cranworth|
|Born||30 June 1800
Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire
|Died||20 July 1873|
|Spouse(s)||(1) Ellinor Abraham
(2) Eleanor Tennant
|Alma mater||University of Oxford|
Background and education
Born at Bradford on Avon, in Wiltshire, he was the son of the doctor Richard Bethel. Taking 1st class in classics and 2nd class in mathematics, he joined Wadham College, Oxford, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1818, having been elected a fellow. In 1823 Bethell was called to the bar at the Middle Temple.
Westbury was made a Queen's Counsel in 1840 was appointed vice-chancellor of the County Palatine of Lancaster in 1851. His most important public service was the reform of the then existing mode of legal education, a reform which ensured that students before call to the bar should have at least some acquaintance with the elements of the subject which they were to profess. In 1851 he obtained a seat in the British House of Commons, where he represented, first Aylesbury until 1859, then Wolverhampton for the next two years. Attaching himself to the liberals, he became Solicitor General in 1852, on whose occasion he was made a Knight Bachelor. He was nominated Attorney-General in 1856 and again in 1859, serving both times for two years.
On 26 June 1861, on the death of Lord Campbell, he was appointed Lord Chancellor and raised to the peerage as Baron Westbury, of Westbury, in the County of Wiltshire. Owing to the reception by parliament of reports of committees nominated to consider the circumstances of certain appointments in the Leeds Bankruptcy Court, as well as the granting a pension to a Mr Leonard Edmunds, a clerk in the patent office, and a clerk of the parliaments, the lord chancellor felt it incumbent upon him to resign his office, which he accordingly did on 5 July 1865, and was succeeded by Robert Rolfe, 1st Baron Cranworth. After his resignation he continued to take part in the judicial sittings of the House of Lords and the Privy Council until his death. In 1872 he was appointed arbitrator under the European Assurance Society Act 1872.
Perhaps the best known of his decision was the judgment delivering the opinion of the judicial committee of the privy council in 1863 against the heretical character of certain extracts from the well-known publication Essays and Reviews. His principal legislative achievements were the passing of the Divorce Act 1857, and of the Land Registry Act 1862 (generally known as Lord Westbury's Act), the latter of which in practice proved a failure. What chiefly distinguished Lord Westbury was the possession of a certain sarcastic humour; and numerous are the stories, authentic and apocryphal, of its exercise. In fact, he and Sir William Henry Maule filled a position analogous to that of Sydney Smith, convenient names to whom good things may be attributed.
Lord Westbury married Ellinor Mary, daughter of Robert Abraham, in 1825. After her death in March 1863 he married Eleanor Margaret, daughter of Henry Tennant, in January 1873. Westbury died on 20 July 1873, within a day of the death of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, his special antagonist in debate, and was buried in the Great Northern Cemetery (now the New Southgate Cemetery). He was succeeded in the barony by his son from his first marriage, Richard. Lady Westbury died in December 1894.
- This article originally from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.
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- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Lord Westbury