Colin Blackburn, Baron Blackburn

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The Lord Blackburn
LordBlackburn (cropped).jpg
Lord of Appeal in Ordinary
In office

Colin Blackburn, Baron Blackburn, PC (18 May 1813 – 8 January 1896) was a British lawyer and judge. The son of a Scottish clergyman, he was educated in Scotland and England, before joining the English bar. Despite an unpromising beginning owing to the lack of personal connections or political patronage, he was unexpectedly elevated from the junior bar to a puisne judgeship in the Court of Queen's Bench by Lord Campbell in 1859, where he distinguished himself as a jurist. In 1876, he was the first person to be appoined as a law lord under the provisions of the newly enacted Appellate Jurisdiction Act. He retired in 1886 and died ten years later. Blackburn was the author of many leading common law judgments, which still continue to be cited today.


Colin Blackburn was the second son of John Blackburn of Killearn, Stirlingshire, and Rebecca, daughter of the Rev. Colin Gillies. His birth occurred on the 18th of May 1813. His elder brother, Peter Blackburn, represented Stirlingshire in the conservative interest in the parliament of 1859–65. Additionally, his younger brother was the renowned mathematician Hugh Blackburn.[1]

The future judge's education began at the Edinburgh Academy, followed by Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. At the university, he earned his B.A. (eighth wrangler) in 1835 and later, his M.A. in 1838.[2] In 1870, he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh. He commenced his legal studies on 20 April 1835, as a student at Lincoln's Inn. Later, he migrated to the Inner Temple, where he was called to the bar on 23 November 1838, and elected an honorary bencher on 13 April 1877.[1]

For some years after his call, he went the northern circuit in a briefless or almost briefless condition. He had no professional connection, no turn for politics, no political interest, and none of the advantages of person and address which make for success in advocacy.[3] During this period employed himself in reporting and editing, with T. F. Ellis, eight volumes of the respected Ellis and Blackburn reports.[4] Though his well-earned repute as a legal author led to his occasional employment in weighty mercantile cases, he was still a stuff gownsman, and better known in the courts as a reporter than as a pleader, when on the transference of Sir William Erle from the Queen's Bench to the chief-justiceship of the common pleas, Lord Campbell startled the profession by selecting him for the vacant puisne judgeship. He was appointed justice on 27 June 1859, and on 2 November following, was invested with the coif. He was knighted on 24 April 1860.[5] The surprise with which his advancement was received was proved by the event to have been singularly ill-founded.[1]


It was soon apparent that the new puisne judge possessed in an eminent degree all the essential qualities of the judicial mind. To a logical faculty, naturally acute and improved by severe discipline, he added a depth of learning, a breadth of view, a sobriety of judgment, and inexhaustible patience, which made his decisions as nearly as possible infallible. Few causes célèbres came before him during his seventeen-year tenure of office as judge of first instance, but the dignity and impartiality with which he presided at the trial (28 October 1867) of the Manchester Fenians were worthy of a more august occasion, and his charge to the grand jury of Middlesex (2 June 1868) on the bill of indictment against the late governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, though not perhaps altogether unexceptionable, is, on the whole, a sound, weighty, and vigorous exposition of the principles applicable to the determination of a question of great delicacy and the gravest imperial consequence.

Only once was his judicial ability seriously questioned: this was an attack on him in an extraordinary letter to The Times in 1877 by the bitter-tongued Irish judge Jonathan Christian, who chose to treat Blackburn's reversal of one of his judgments[6] as a personal affront. Christian was notorious for quarrelling with his Irish colleagues, and thought poorly of the ability of even the most distinguished of them (notably Lord O'Hagan, who sat with Blackburn on the appeal and joined with him in reversing Christian's decision) so his attack on Blackburn need not be taken seriously (it has been suggested that O'Hagan was the real target of his indignation).

The consolidation of the courts effected by the Judicature Acts of 1873 and 1875 gave Blackburn the status of justice of the high court, which numbered among its members no judge of more tried ability when the Appellate Jurisdiction Act of 1876 authorised the reinforcement of the House of Lords by the creation of two judicial life peers, designated "lords of appeal in ordinary". Blackburn's investiture with the new dignity met accordingly with universal approbation. He was raised to the life peerage on 10 October 1876, by the title of Baron Blackburn, of Killearn in the County of Stirlingshire,[7] and took his seat in the House of Lords and was sworn of the Privy Council in the following month (21, 28 November) In the part which he thenceforth took in the administration of our imperial jurisprudence, Blackburn acquitted himself with an ability so consummate as to cause his retirement in December 1886 to be felt as an almost irreparable loss. The regret was intensified by the discovery of a curious flaw in the Appellate Jurisdiction Act, by which his resignation of office carried with it his exclusion from the House of Lords. This anomaly was, however, removed by an amending act. He died, unmarried, at his country seat, Doonholm, Ayrshire, on 8 January 1896.[1]


Blackburn was a member of the royal commissions on the courts of law (1867) and the stock exchange (1877), and presided over the royal commission on the draft criminal code (1878). He was the author of a masterly Treatise on the Effect of the Contract of Sale on the Legal Rights of Property and Possession in Goods. Wares, and Merchandise, London, 1845, 8vo, which held its own as the standard textbook on the subject until displaced by the more comprehensive work of Benjamin. A new edition, revised by J. C. Graham, appeared in 1885. As a reporter Blackburn collaborated with Thomas Flower Ellis.[1]

Though greatly respected he does not seem to have been popular. According to a well-known story, he informed a colleague that he intended to retire in vacation to avoid the trouble of a retirement dinner – the colleague cheerfully replied that this was quite unnecessary since no one would have turned up to the dinner anyway.[8]

He was the author of a valuable work on the Law of Sales.[9][4]


"a lord of appeal". Caricature by Spy published in Vanity Fair in 1881.

The following is a list of some of the cases in which Lord Blackburn gave judgment:

Queen's Bench[edit]

House of Lords[edit]

Other notable cases in which Lord Blackburn delivered judgment:

  • Glyn Mills & Co v East and West India Dock Co (1882) 7 App. Cas. 591


Coat of arms of Colin Blackburn, Baron Blackburn
Blackburn Achievement.png
A Stag's Head erased as in the Arms[10]
Argent on a Pale Sable three Stags' Heads erased Argent


  1. ^ a b c d e Rigg 1901.
  2. ^ "Blackburn, Colin (BLKN831C)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. ^ James McMullen Rigg, "Blackburn, Colin", Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 1.
  4. ^ a b Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Blackburn, Colin Blackburn" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 20.
  5. ^ "No. 22380". The London Gazette. 27 April 1860. p. 1595.
  6. ^ O'Rorke v Bolingbroke (1877) 2 App Cas 814
  7. ^ "No. 24370". The London Gazette. 6 October 1876. p. 5347.
  8. ^ Sir John Hollam Jottings of an Old Solicitor London 1906
  9. ^ 'The Times, 10 January 1896; E Manson, Builders of our Law (1904).
  10. ^ "Blackburn, Baron (Law Lord) (UK, 1876 - 1896)".

Attribution: Wikisource This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainRigg, James McMullen (1901). "Blackburn, Colin". Dictionary of National Biography (1st supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co.

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