Thomas Edward Scrutton

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The Right Honourable
Sir Thomas Edward Scrutton
Sir Thomas Scrutton
King's Bench Division
Court of Appeal
Personal details
Born 28 August 1856
Poplar, London
Died 18 August 1934
Nationality British
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge

Sir Thomas Edward Scrutton (28 August 1856 – 18 August 1934) was an English legal text-writer and a judge of considerable eminence.


Thomas Edward Scrutton was born in London, the son of Thomas Urquhart Scrutton, a wealthy shipowner and head of the well-known shipping firm of Scrutton and Co. He studied as a scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge,[1] and at University College London. At Cambridge he won the Whewell Scholarship and the Yorke Prize four times, the first person to do so. He was also President of the Cambridge Union. Despite his achievements, he did not obtain a fellowship at Trinity, nor did he attempt to, perhaps partly due to a feeling among some fellows that he lacked 'originality'.

He was called to the bar by the Middle Temple in 1882, and developed a busy practice in commercial cases. He became a King's Counsel in 1901 and a bencher of the Middle Temple in 1908. He was also professor of constitutional law and legal history at University College, London. In the 1886 election, he stood unsuccessfully as the Liberal candidate for Limehouse.

He wrote The Contract of Affreightment as Expressed in Charter-parties and Bills of Lading (1886), in which he was able to draw on his knowledge of the family business as well as his legal training. Over a century later, this is still the standard text, while several of his other legal works, especially that on copyright, remain useful.

Judicial career[edit]

Copyright, Vanity Fair, 1911

He was a judge of the King's Bench Division (1910–16) and of the Court of Appeal (1916–34).[2] He frequently sat in the Court of Appeal with Bankes[3] and Atkin LJJ, a combination which has often been cited as one of the strongest benches ever to sit in commercial cases.[4] On the criminal side he presided over the celebrated 1915 "Brides-in-the-Bath" trial of George Joseph Smith, and made a crucial ruling on "similar fact evidence" : Smith was charged with murdering only one of his recent brides by drowning her in the bath, but Scrutton ruled that the fact that two of his other brides had died in almost identical circumstances was admissible as evidence of a method or pattern of murder.

Despite his great ability, Scrutton had a reputation as a difficult judge to appear before: "he did not suffer fools gladly, and often refused to suffer them at all" was one verdict. His stern appearance and sweeping beard (he is said never to have shaved) intimidated most of those who appeared before him. His intolerance extended even to other judges, particularly the flamboyant and controversial Sir Henry McCardie whom he openly despised, and whom he attacked with increasing bitterness until their mutual antipathy resulted in a public quarrel. McCardie committed suicide soon afterwards, but the cause is generally thought to have been depression, unconnected to the quarrel.

His reputation for being difficult may explain his failure to achieve further promotion to the House of Lords, since he was unquestionably well qualified on merit to be a Law Lord. In his later years he is said to have mellowed considerably: Henry Cecil, the judge and humourist, recalled in his memoir Just Within the Law that Scrutton, in the only case Cecil argued in front of him, had been perfectly polite, although he could not resist one dry comment that a barrister who feels that he must repeat every point four times cannot have much opinion of the Court's intelligence.

Personal life and family[edit]

In private life he had a passion for golf. He was noted for religious scepticism: at his death he left instructions that there should be "no empty Christian rituals" at his burial, although his wishes were either ignored or overlooked. His son Tom, in contrast to his father's scepticism, became a clergyman.

He married Mary Burton and had four sons, the youngest of whom died in the First World War, and a daughter.[5] Mary Midgley, the philosopher, is his granddaughter, and gives a valuable sketch of him in her 2005 autobiography An Owl of MInerva.


  1. ^ "Scrutton, Thomas Edward (SCRN876TE)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  2. ^ Online Encyclopedia: Sir Thomas Edward Scrutton
  3. ^ See The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Bankes JE
  4. ^ E.g. in Borealis Ab v. Stargas Limited and Others and Bergesen D.Y. A/S [2001] UKHL 17; [2001] 2 All ER 193, per Lord Hobhouse at para 20; Imageview Management Ltd v. Kelvin Jack [2009] EWCA Civ 63 per Jacob LJ at para 20 and per Mummery LJ at para 64.
  5. ^ Sir Frank MacKinnon, D.N.B 1931 - 1940

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