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George Jessel in United Kingdom

Life and Work

From the book “Studies in Contemporary Biography”, by James Bryce:

There is hardly any walk of English life in which brilliant abilities win so little fame for their possessor among the public at large as that of practice at the Chancery bar. A leading ecclesiastic, or physician, or surgeon, or financier, or manufacturer, or even a great man of science, unless his work is done in some sphere which, like pure mathematics, is far removed from the comprehension of ordinary educated men, is sure, in a time like ours, to become well known to the world and acquire influence in it. A great advocate practising in the Common-law Courts is, of course, still more certain to become a familiar figure. But the cases which are dealt with by the Courts of Equity, though they often involve vast sums of money and raise intricate and important points of law, mostly turn on questions of a technical kind, and are seldom what the newspapers call sensational. Thus it may happen that a practitioner or a judge in these Courts enjoys an 171 extraordinary reputation within his profession, and is by them regarded as one of the ornaments of his time, while the rest of his fellow-countrymen know nothing at all about his merits.

This was the case with Sir George Jessel, though towards the end of his career the admiration which the Bar felt for his powers began so far to filter through to the general public that his premature death was felt to be a national misfortune.

Jessel (born in 1824, died in 1883) was only one among many instances England has lately seen of men of Jewish origin climbing to the highest distinction. But he was the first instance of a Jew who, continuing to adhere to the creed of his forefathers, received a very high office; for Mr. Disraeli, as every one knows, had been baptized as a boy, and always professed to be a Christian. Jessel’s career was not marked by any remarkable incidents. He rose quickly to eminence at the bar, being in this aided by his birth; for the Jews in London, as elsewhere, hold together. There are among them many solicitors in large practice, and these take a natural pleasure in pushing forward any specially able member of their community. His powers were more fully seen and appreciated when he became (in 1865) a Queen’s Counsel, and brought him with unusual speed to the front rank. He came into Parliament at the general election of 1868 on the Liberal side, and three 172 years later was made Solicitor-General in Mr. Gladstone’s first Government, retaining, as was then usual, his private practice, which had become so large that there was scarcely any case of first-rate importance brought into the Chancery Courts in which he did not appear. Although a decided Liberal, as the Jews mostly were until Lord Beaconsfield’s foreign policy had begun to lead them into other paths, he had borne little part in politics till he took his seat in the House of Commons; and when he spoke there, he obtained no great success. Lawyers in the English Parliament are under the double disadvantage of having had less leisure than most other members to study and follow political questions, and of having contracted a manner and style of speaking not suited to an assembly which, though deliberative, is not deliberate, and which listens with impatience to a technical or forensic method of treating the topics which come before it.

Jessel’s ability would have soon overcome the former difficulty, but less easily the latter. Though he was lucid and powerful in his treatment of legal topics, and made a quite admirable law officer in the way of advising ministers and the public departments, he was never popular with the House of Commons, for he presented his views in a hard, dry, dogmatic form, with no graces of style or delivery. However, he did 173 not long remain in that arena, but on the retirement of Lord Romilly from the office of Master of the Rolls, was in 1873 appointed to succeed him. In this post his extraordinary gifts found their amplest sphere. The equity judges in England used always to sit, and in nearly all cases do still sit, without a jury to hear causes, with or without witnesses, and they despatch a great deal of the heaviest business that is brought into the courts. Commercial causes of the first importance come before them, no less than those which relate to trusts or to real property; and the granting of injunctions, a specially serious matter, rests chiefly in their hands. Each equity judge sits alone, and the suitor may choose before which of them he will bring his case. Among the four—a number subsequently increased to five—equity judges of first instance, Jessel immediately rose to the highest reputation, so that most of the heavy and difficult cases were brought into his court. He possessed a wonderfully quick, as well as powerful, mind, which got to the kernel of a matter while other people were still hammering at the shell, and which applied legal principles just as swiftly and surely as it mastered a group of complicated facts.

The Rolls Court used to present, while he presided over it, a curious and interesting sight, which led young counsel, who had no business to do there, to frequent it for the mere sake of watching the Judge. When the leading counsel 174 for the plaintiff was opening his case, Jessel listened quietly for the first few minutes only, and then began to address questions to the counsel, at first so as to guide his remarks in a particular direction, then so as to stop his course altogether and turn his speech into a series of answers to the Judge’s interrogatories. When, by a short dialogue of this kind, Jessel had possessed himself of the vital facts, he would turn to the leading counsel for the defendant and ask him whether he admitted such and such facts alleged by the plaintiff to be true. If these facts were admitted, the Judge proceeded to indicate the view he was disposed to take of the law applicable to the facts, and, by a few more questions to the counsel on the one side or the other, as the case might be, elicited their respective legal grounds of contention.

If the facts were not admitted, it of course became necessary to call the witnesses or read the affidavits, processes which the vigorous impatience of the Judge considerably shortened, for it was a dangerous thing to read to him any irrelevant or loosely-drawn paragraph. But more generally his searching questions and the sort of pressure he applied so cut down the issues of fact that there was little or nothing left in controversy regarding which it was necessary to examine the evidence in detail, since the counsel felt that there was no use in putting before him a contention 175 which they could not sustain under the fire of his criticism. Then Jessel proceeded to deliver his opinion and dispose of the case. The affair was from beginning to end far less an argument and counter-argument by counsel than an investigation directly conducted by the Judge himself, in which the principal function of the counsel was to answer the Judge’s questions concisely and exactly, so that the latter might as soon as possible get to the bottom of the matter. The Bar in a little while came to learn and adapt themselves to his ways, and few complained of being stopped or interrupted by him, because his interruptions, unlike those of some judges, were neither inopportune nor superfluous.

The counsel (with scarcely an exception) felt themselves his inferiors, and recognised not only that he was better able to handle the case than they were, but that the manner and style in which they presented their facts or arguments would make little difference to the result, because his penetration was sure to discover the merits of each contention, and neither eloquence nor pertinacity would have the slightest effect on his resolute and self-confident mind. Thus business was despatched before him with unexampled speed, and it became a maxim among barristers that, however low down in the cause-list at the Rolls your cause might stand, it was never safe to be away from the court, so rapidly 176 were cases “crumpled up” or “broken down” under the blows of this vigorous intellect. It was more surprising that the suitors, as well as the Bar and the public generally, acquiesced, after the first few months, in this way of doing business. Nothing breeds more discontent than haste and heedlessness in a judge. But Jessel’s speed was not haste. He did as much justice in a day as others could do in a week; and those few who, dissatisfied with these rapid methods, tried to reverse his decisions before the Court of Appeal, were very seldom successful, although that court then contained in Lord Justice James and Lord Justice Mellish two unusually strong men, who would not have hesitated to differ even from the redoubtable Master of the Rolls.

As I have mentioned Lord Justice Mellish, I may turn aside for a moment to say a word regarding that extraordinary man, who stood along with Cairns and Roundell Palmer in the foremost rank of Jessel’s professional contemporaries. Mellish held for some years before his elevation to the Bench in 1869 a position unique at the English Common-law Bar as a giver of opinions on points of law. As the Israelites in King David’s day said of Ahithophel that his counsel was as if a man had inquired at the oracle of God,[25] so the legal profession deemed Mellish 177 practically infallible, and held an opinion signed by him to be equal in weight to a judgment of the Court of Exchequer Chamber (the then court of appeal in common-law cases). He was not effective as an advocate addressing a jury, being indeed far too good for any jury; but in arguing a point of law his unerring logic, the lucidity with which he stated his position, the cogency and precision with which he drew his inferences, made it a delight to listen to him. (…)

I remember to have once heard him and Cairns argue before the House of Lords (sitting as the final Court of Appeal) a case relating to a vessel called the Alexandra—it was a case 178 arising out of an attempt of the Confederates, during the American War of Secession, to get out of a British port a cruiser they had ordered. Cairns spoke first with all his usual power, and seemed to have left nothing to be added. But when Mellish followed on the same side, he set his points in so strong a light, and placed his contention on so solid a basis, that even Cairns’s speech was forgotten, and it seemed impossible that any answer could be found to Mellish’s arguments. One felt as if the voice of pure reason were speaking through his lips.

Such an intellect might seem admirably qualified for judicial work. But as a judge, Mellish, admirable though he was in temper, in fairness, in learning, and in logic, did not win so exceptional a reputation as he had won at the Bar. People used to ascribe this partly to his weak health, partly to the fact that he, who had been a common-law practitioner, was sitting in a court which heard equity appeals, and alongside of a quick and strong colleague reared in the equity courts.[27] But something may have been due to the fact that he needed the stimulus of conflict to bring out the full force of his splendid intelligence. A circumstance attending the appointment of 179 Mellish illustrates the remark already made that a great counsel whose work lies apart from so-called “sensation cases” may remain unknown to his contemporaries. When Mr. Gladstone, being then Prime Minister, and having to select a Lord Justice of Appeal, was told that Mellish was the fittest man for the post, he asked, “Can that be the boy who was my fag at Eton?” He had not heard of Mellish during the intervening forty years!

However, I return to the Master of the Rolls. In dealing with facts, Jessel has never had a superior, and in our days, perhaps, no rival. He knew all the ways of the financial and commercial world. In his treatment of points of law, every one admitted and admired both an extraordinary knowledge and mastery of reported cases, and an extremely acute and exact appreciation of principles, a complete power of extracting them from past cases and fitting them to the case in hand. He had a memory which forgot nothing, and which, indeed, wearied him by refusing to forget trivial things. When he delivered an elaborate judgment it was his delight to run through a long series of cases, classifying and distinguishing them. His strength made him bold; he went further than most judges in readiness to carry a principle somewhat beyond any decided case, and to overrule an authority which he did not 180 respect. The fault charged on him was his tendency, perhaps characteristic of the Hebrew mind, to take a somewhat hard and dry view of a legal principle, overlooking its more delicate shades, and, in the interpretation of statutes or documents, to adhere too strictly to the letter, overlooking the spirit. An eminent lawyer said, “If all judges had been like Jessel, there might have been no equity.”

In that respect many deemed him inferior to Lord Cairns, the greatest judge among his contemporaries, who united to an almost equally wide and accurate knowledge of the law a grasp of principles even more broad and philosophical than Jessel’s was. Be this as it may, the judgments of the Master of the Rolls, which fill so many pages of the recent English Law Reports, are among the best that have ever gone to build up the fabric of the English law. Except on two occasions, when he reserved judgment at the request of his colleagues in the Court of Appeal, they were delivered on the spur of the moment, after the conclusion of the arguments, or of so much of the arguments as he allowed counsel to deliver; but they have all the merits of carefully-considered utterances, so clear and direct is their style, so concisely as well as cogently are the authorities discussed and the grounds of decision stated. The bold and sweeping character which often belongs to them makes 181 them more instructive as well as more agreeable reading than the judgments of most modern judges, whose commonest fault is a timidity which tries to escape, by dwelling on the details of the particular case, from the enunciation of a definite general principle. Positive and definite Jessel always was. As he put it himself: “I may be wrong, but I never have any doubts.”

At the Bar, Jessel had been far from popular; for his manners were unpolished, and his conduct towards other counsel overbearing. On the Bench he improved, and became liked as well as respected. There was a sort of rough bonhomie about him, and though he could be disagreeable on occasions to a leading counsel, especially if brought from the common-law bar into his court, he showed a good-humoured wish to deal gently with young or inexperienced barristers. There was also an obvious anxiety to do justice, an impatience of mere technicalities, and a readiness, remarkable in so strong-willed a man, to hear what could be said against his own opinion, and to reconsider it. Besides, a profession is naturally proud of any one whose talents adorn it, and whose eminence seems to be communicated to the whole body.

Ever since, under the Plantagenet kings, the Chancery became a law court, the office of Master of the Rolls had been that of a judge of first 182 instance. In 1881 its character was changed, and its occupant placed at the head of the Court of Appeal. Thus it was as an appellate judge that Jessel latterly sat, giving no less satisfaction in that capacity than in his former one, and being indeed confessedly the strongest judicial intellect (except Lord Cairns) on the Bench. Outside his professional duties, his chief interest was in the University of London, at which he had himself graduated. He was a member of its senate, and busied himself with its examinations, being up till the last excessively fond of work, and finding that of a judge who sits for five or six hours daily insufficient to satisfy his appetite. He was not what would be called a highly cultivated man, although he knew a great deal beyond the field of law, mathematics, for instance, and Hebrew literature and botany, for he had been brought up in a not very refined circle, and had been absorbed in legal work during the best years of his life. But his was an intelligence of extraordinary power and flexibility, eminently practical, as the Semitic intellect generally is, and yet thoroughly scientific.

And he was also one of those strong natures who make themselves disliked while they are fighting their way to the top, but grow more genial and more tolerant when they have won what they sought, and perceive that others admit their pre-eminence. The services which he rendered as a 183 judge illustrate not only the advantage of throwing open all places to all comers—the bigotry of an elder day excluded the Jews from judicial office altogether—but also the benefit of having a judge at least equal in ability to the best of those who practise before him. It was because Jessel was so easily master in his court that so large and important a part of the judicial business of the country was, during many years, despatched with a swiftness and a success seldom equalled in the annals of the English Courts.



  1. James Bryce, “Studies in Contemporary Biography” (1903), MacMillan and Co., Limited, New York

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  • Article Name: George Jessel
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  • Description: Life and Work From the book Studies in Contemporary Biography, by James Bryce: There is hardly any walk of English life [...]

This entry was last updated: October 28, 2016

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