John Bigham, 1st Viscount Mersey

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The Viscount Mersey
Lord Mersey
President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division
In office
10 February 1909 – 1910
Preceded bySir Gorell Barnes
Justice of the High Court
In office
1897 – 10 February 1909
Member of Parliament for Liverpool Exchange
In office
7 August 1895 – 10 November 1897
Preceded byRalph Neville
Succeeded byCharles McArthur
Personal details
Born(1840-08-03)3 August 1840
Died3 September 1929(1929-09-03) (aged 89)
Littlehampton, Sussex

John Charles Bigham, 1st Viscount Mersey, PC (3 August 1840 – 3 September 1929) was a British jurist and politician. After early success as a lawyer and a less successful spell as a politician, he was appointed a judge and worked in commercial law.

After his retirement, Mersey remained active in public affairs and is probably best remembered for heading the official Board of Trade inquiries into the sinking of steamships, most notably RMS Titanic, RMS Lusitania and RMS Empress of Ireland.

Early life[edit]

Bigham was born in Liverpool, the second son of John Bigham, a prosperous merchant, and his wife, Helen, née East.[1] He was educated at the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, and the University of London, where he studied law.

Bigham left the university without taking a degree. He then travelled to Berlin and Paris to continue his education. Called to the bar in 1870 by the Middle Temple, he practised commercial law in and around his native city. On 17 August 1871 he married Georgina Sarah Rogers, also from Liverpool. The first of their three sons, Charles Clive Bigham (2nd Viscount Mersey), was born in 1872.[1]

Barrister and judge[edit]

Bigham caricatured by Spy for Vanity Fair, 1898

In 1883, Bigham was named a Queen's Counsel.[1] His commercial practice prospered. In 1885, he tried his hand at politics, standing as a Liberal candidate for Parliament at the Liverpool constituency of East Toxteth, but lost.[2] In 1892, he stood unsuccessfully in another Liverpool seat, the Exchange constituency. He was finally elected at his third attempt in 1895, when he stood as a Liberal Unionist.[2]

He was never able to make a great political impact, and his interest in politics was less than that in his legal work, which continued to flourish. During his last decade as a barrister, he was so in demand that he became one of the richest lawyers in his circle.[1]

In October 1897, Bigham was named a judge to the Queen's Bench,[3] continuing his work in business law, and disqualifying him being an MP.[2] He was knighted the following month.[4]

He was president of the Railway and Canal Commission, worked in the bankruptcy courts and reviewed courts-martial sentences that were handed down during the Second Boer War. He was appointed President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division in 1909 but found the divorce work unfulfilling and retired in 1910. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Mersey, of Toxteth in the County Palatine of Lancaster, the same year.[1]

RMS Titanic[edit]

In 1912, Mersey received his greatest fame when he was appointed by Lord Loreburn, the Lord Chancellor in the government of H. H. Asquith, to head the inquiry commission into the sinking of RMS Titanic. There was some criticism of his handling of the inquiry. Some felt that he was biased towards the Board of Trade and the major shipping concerns and cared too little about finding out why the ship sank.[clarification needed] In 1998, the historian Daniel Butler described Mersey as "autocratic, impatient and not a little testy" but noted the "surprising objectivity" of the inquiry's findings.[5] However, Peter Padfield later concluded that there had been "crazy deductions, distortions, prejudice, and occasional bone-headed obstinacy of witnesses and the court".[6]

In 1913, Mersey presided over the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and added three more maritime inquiries to his résumé with his heading of the inquiries into the sinkings of RMS Empress of Ireland (held in Canada in 1914) and the Falaba and RMS Lusitania in 1915. About the last, Mersey is among those suspected by conspiracy theorists of a coverup. His biographer Hugh Mooney writes that such suspicions are wholly conjectural, but "the conclusion of the inquiry (which blamed Germany for the tragedy without reservation) was without doubt politically convenient".[1] Mersey was raised in the peerage from baron to viscount in 1916.

Later life[edit]

In his later years, Mersey was beset by deafness, but continued to work actively and returned to the bench in his eighties when the divorce courts had a heavy backlog. Mooney writes that "he helped to clear the lists with all his old efficiency". His wife died in 1925, and he died four years later at Littlehampton in Sussex, aged 89.[1]

Mersey's third son (although the second surviving) was Sir Trevor Bigham, who became Deputy Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. His first son, Colonel Charles Clive Bigham, survived the sinking of the passenger ship SS Persia in 1915.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Mooney, Hugh (May 2006). "Bigham, John Charles, first Viscount Mersey (1840–1929)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31884. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c Craig, F. W. S. (1983) [1989]. British parliamentary election results 1885–1918 (2nd ed.). Chichester: Parliamentary Research Services. pp. 139, 141. ISBN 0-900178-27-2.
  3. ^ "No. 26902". The London Gazette. 22 October 1897. p. 5799.
  4. ^ "No. 26915". The London Gazette. 30 November 1897. p. 7172.
  5. ^ Butler, quoted in ODNB
  6. ^ Eugene L. Rasor, The Titanic: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography (2001), p. 53


External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Liverpool Exchange
Succeeded by
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Viscount Mersey
Succeeded by
Baron Mersey