William Brett, 1st Viscount Esher

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The Viscount Esher

William Baliol Brett.jpg
Lord Esher by John Everett Millais.
In office
10 February 1868 – 16 September 1868
Prime MinisterBenjamin Disraeli
Preceded bySir Charles Jasper Selwyn
Succeeded bySir Richard Baggallay
Master of the Rolls
In office
April 1883 – 1897
Preceded bySir George Jessel
Succeeded bySir Nathaniel Lindley
Personal details
Born13 August 1815 (1815-08-13) [1]
Died24 May 1899 (1899-05-25) (aged 83)
London, England
Political partyConservative
Spouse(s)Eugénie Mayer
Children3, including Reginald
Alma materKing's College London
Caius College, Cambridge

William Baliol Brett, 1st Viscount Esher, PC (13 August 1815 – 24 May 1899), known as Sir William Brett between 1868 and 1883, was a British lawyer, judge, and Conservative politician. He was briefly Solicitor-General under Benjamin Disraeli and then served as a justice of the Court of Common Pleas between 1868 and 1876, as a Lord Justice of Appeal between 1876 and 1883 and as Master of the Rolls. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Esher in 1885 and further honoured when he was made Viscount Esher on his retirement in 1897.

Background and education[edit]

Brett was a son of the Reverend Joseph George Brett, of Chelsea, London, by Dorothy, daughter of George Best, of Chilston Park, Boughton Malherbe, Kent.[2] He was educated at Westminster School, King's College London and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.[3] Brett rowed for Cambridge University Boat Club against Leander Club in 1837 and 1838, then in the victorious Cambridge crew against Oxford University in the 1839 Boat Race.[4]


Called to the Bar in 1840, Brett went to the northern circuit[5] and became a Queen's Counsel in 1861.[6] On the death of Richard Cobden in 1865, he unsuccessfully contested Rochdale as a Conservative, but in 1866, he was returned for Helston in unique circumstances. He and his opponent polled exactly the same number of votes, and the mayor, as returning officer, then gave his casting vote for the Liberal candidate. As the vote was given after four o'clock, however, an appeal was lodged, and the House of Commons allowed both members to take their seats.[5]

Brett rapidly made his mark in the House, and in early 1868, he was knighted[7] and appointed Solicitor General under Benjamin Disraeli. On behalf of the Crown, he prosecuted the Fenians charged with having caused the Clerkenwell Outrage. In Parliament, he took a leading part in the promotion of bills connected with the administration of law and justice. In August 1868, he was appointed a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas.[8] Some of his sentences in this capacity excited much criticism, notably so in the case of the gas stokers strike, when he sentenced the defendants to imprisonment for twelve months, with hard labour, which was afterwards reduced by the Home Secretary to four months.[5]

On the reconstitution of the Court of Appeal in 1876, Brett was elevated to the rank of a Lord Justice of Appeal. He was sworn of the Privy Council at the same time.[9] After holding the position for seven years, he succeeded Sir George Jessel as Master of the Rolls in 1883.[10] In 1885 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Esher, of Esher in the County of Surrey.[11] He opposed the bill proposing that an accused person or his wife might give evidence in their own case aand supported the bill that empowered Lords of Appeal to sit and vote after their retirement. The Solicitors Act 1888, which increased the powers of the Incorporated Law Society, owed much to his influence. In 1880, he delivered a speech in the House of Lords, deprecating the delay and expense of trials, which he regarded as having been increased by the Judicature Act 1873.[5] He retired from the bench at the close of 1897, and was created Viscount Esher, of Esher in the County of Surrey,[12] a dignity never given to any judge, Lord Chancellors excepted, for mere legal conduct since the time of Lord Coke.[5]



Lord Esher married Eugénie Mayer (1814–1904) in 1850.[18] Eugénie was possibly the illegitimate daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte and Fanny Meyer,[citation needed] though other sources suggest that her father was one Louis Mayer.[18] They had two sons, Reginald, and Eugène,[18] and a daughter Violet, wife of William Humble Dudley Ward and mother of William Dudley Ward.[2] Lord Esher died in London in May 1899, aged eighty-one, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Reginald.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.cracroftspeerage.co.uk/online/content/esher1897.htm
  2. ^ a b thepeerage.com William Baliol Brett, 1st Viscount Esher
  3. ^ "Brett, William Baliol (BRT835WB)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. ^ Woodgate, Walter Bradford (1888). Boating. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pp. 255–256. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Esher, William Baliol Brett, 1st Viscount" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 768.
  6. ^ "No. 22483". The London Gazette. 26 February 1861. p. 792.
  7. ^ "No. 23359". The London Gazette. 6 March 1868. p. 1519.
  8. ^ "No. 23417". The London Gazette. 28 August 1868. p. 4733.
  9. ^ "No. 24389". The London Gazette. 1 December 1876. p. 6673.
  10. ^ "No. 25218". The London Gazette. 3 April 1883. p. 1777.
  11. ^ "No. 25493". The London Gazette. 1 December 1885. p. 6673.
  12. ^ "No. 26910". The London Gazette. 12 November 1897. p. 6227.
  13. ^ "Contract - General Principles - Remedies - Specific Performance and Injunctions - Specific Performance". The Laws of Australia. Thomson Reuters. 31 August 2006. pp. [7.9.1450].
  14. ^ *Lunney, M. & Oliphant, K. (2003). Tort Law:Text and Materials (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. pp91–91. ISBN 0-19-926055-9.
  15. ^ The Law Reports, Queens Bench Division (1887). "In the Arbitration between Secretary of State for Home Department and Fletcher" (Vol XVIII): 340–346. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. ^ Henderson, J.A. et al. The Torts Process, Seventh Edition. Apsen Publishers, New York, NY: 2007, p. 424
  17. ^ "Report 63 (1988) – Jurisdiction of Local Courts Over Foreign Land". Law Reform Commission, New South Wales. 30 May 2001. Retrieved 1 September 2008. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. ^ a b c Hedley, S. (2004) "Brett, William Baliol, first Viscount Esher (1815–1899)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 20 November 2007 (subscription or UK public library membership required)

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Robert Campbell
Member of Parliament for Helston
Succeeded by
Adolphus William Young
Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Charles Jasper Selwyn
Solicitor General
February 1868 – September 1868
Succeeded by
Sir Richard Baggallay
Preceded by
Sir George Jessel
Master of the Rolls
1883 – 1897
Succeeded by
Sir Nathaniel Lindley
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Viscount Esher
Succeeded by
Reginald Brett
Baron Esher