The Right Honourable Sir John Taylor Coleridge [Obituary]

Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1876, Vol VIII, pp. 43-46.


Rev W. Harpley

Prepared by Michael Steer

Sir John Taylor Coleridge (9 July1790 – 11 February 1876) was an English judge, the second son of Captain James Coleridge and nephew of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was born at Tiverton, and was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he had a reputedly brilliant career. He graduated in 1812, became a Vinerian Scholar and was soon after made a fellow of Exeter College. In 1819 he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple and practised for some years on the western circuit. In 1824, on William Gifford's retirement, he assumed the editorship of the Quarterly Review, resigning it a year afterwards in favour of John Gibson Lockhart. In 1825 he published a well regarded edition of William Blackstone's Commentaries, and in 1832 he was made a serjeant-at-law and recorder of Exeter. In 1835 he was appointed one of the judges of the King's Bench. In 1852 his university created him a DCL, and in 1858 he resigned his judgeship, and was made a member of the Privy Council, entitling him to sit on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In 1869, he produced his Memoir of the Rev. John Keble, whose friend he had been since their college days, a third edition of which was issued within a year. He died at Ottery St. Mary, leaving two sons and two daughters. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

The Right Honourable Sir John Taylor Coleridge was the second son of the late Colonel James Coleridge, of Heath's Court, Ottery St Mary. He was born at Tiverton on the 9th July, 1790, and was educated first at Ottery St Mary, under his uncle, the Rev. George Coleridge, and then at Eton as a colleger, and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he gained a scholarship in 1809. He won the Chancellor's University Prize for Latin Verse in 1810, the subject being "Pyramides Egyptiacæ;" and took his Bachelor's Degree in Easter Term, 1812, obtaining a first-class in "Literæ Humaniores," standing alone in that proud position. Soon afterwards he was elected to a Devonshire Fellowship at Exeter College, and also to a Vinerian Scholarship. In 1813 he carried off both the Bachelor's Prizes for Essays in English and Latin, the subject of the former being "Etymology," and of the latter "The Influence of the Censorship upon the Morals of the Roman People."

One of his brother scholars at Corpus was the late Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, with whom, notwithstanding wide divergence of views, he maintained a close and affectionate friendship to the last. His graphic letter, with reminiscences of their glad undergraduate days, which forms one of the most interesting chapters of Dean Stanley's Life of Arnold, will be recalled with pleasure by all who have read that book. Mr. Keble, author of The Christian Year, was another of the distinguished band of Corpus scholars, and he and Sir J. T. Coleridge were knit together in loving brotherhood from early youth to ripe old age, so that no one was more qualified to write the life of the former than the close friend of so many years.

The fact of offering himself as a candidate for the Vinerian Scholarship at Oxford implied per se that he had already made up his mind to choose the bar as his future profession ; and so it was almost a matter of course that he should read law in London, and in due season be called to the bar. His call was at the Middle Temple, and dates from 1819. He then went the Western Circuit, in this selection following his own very natural predilection as a West-countryman. Half a dozen years of his professional career as a practising barrister had hardly run out when, in 1825, he published a carefully-annotated edition of Blackstone's Commentaries. A nephew of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and a near relative of several other Coleridges who had already made their mark, it was no new thing for one who bore his name to be devoted to literature in early life. Accordingly, during the first few years of his practice at the bar, Mr. Coleridge was a frequent writer in the Quarterly Review, which indeed he edited for a year, after the resignation of Mr. Gifford. On the resignation of Mr. Coleridge, Mr. Lockhart was appointed editor. But soon the pressure of the duties of a more lucrative profession left him but little time to do more than contribute at rare intervals to its pages.

He was elected Recorder of Exeter in 1832, and in the same year was made a Serjeant-at-Law; and three years later, in 1835, he was promoted to the Judicial Bench, and received the honour of knighthood. As a Judge, it is little to say that his knowledge of law was equally sound and extensive, and that he was particularly happy in the facility with which he could bring precedents to bear upon the subjects before him, however refined and intricate the latter might be. His charges were noted for their lucid exposition of legal points, and their elegance of diction. Attaining his seat on the Judicial Bench at the early age of forty-five, he held it for twenty-three years, having discharged with signal honour to himself the high duties which devolved upon him.

Eventually, when in 1858 he had nearly approached the allotted age of man, and when his bodily, not his intellectual, powers seemed to require rest, he obtained the repose he had nobly earned. His retirement from the Judicial Bench was signalized by his formal enrolment among the Privy Councillors of the Sovereign. He afterwards frequently took part in decisions in appeals before the Privy Council, where his knowledge of ecclesiastical law and his acquaintance with church matters and parties was often of service to the public; and not unfrequently he had intrusted to him the duty of arbitrating in questions of the highest importance.

Six years prior to Sir John's retirement for the enjoyment thenceforth of lettered ease, he received from the University of Oxford, in which forty years previously he had obtained his education, the honorary degree of D.C.L.

During the latter years of his life he lived for the most part at Heath's Court, near Ottery St. Mary, occasionally visiting London - the head and stay, in every sense, of loving and loved relations, the cultivated, genial host of "troops of friends" far and near, the promoter, with ungrudging aid, of every good enterprise. The restoration of the fine old church at Ottery St. Mary, with the building of three district chapels, was due more or less to his exertions and munificence, not to speak of many another instance of deep attachment to his own faith. His interest was always excited in the work of education, and up to the present time, out of a very moderate fortune, he defrayed the whole expense of a curate aud schoolmistress in the village of Alfington, having first built, entirely at his own charge, the church, the parsonage, the school and schoolmistress's house, on a small property which he had purchased for the purpose. This work of his father it is, we believe, the intention of Lord Coleridge to continue and to complete.

He joined this Association in 1868, on the occasion of its visit to Honiton, and was present at the Meeting, his son, Mr. Coleridge, occupying the Presidential chair at that time. At the banquet given by the Mayor and Corporation to the Association, Sir John, in a most racy speech, proposed the toast, "Prosperity to the Association."

Mr. Justice Coleridge married, in 1818, Mary, second daughter of the late Kev. Gilbert Buchanan, LL.D.. Vicar of Northfleet, Kent, and Rector of Woodmansterne, Surrey, by whom he had a family, and who predeceased him by twentytwo months only. One of his daughters is the wife of Dr. Mackarness, Bishop of Oxford ; his younger son is in Holy Orders in the Roman Church; and his eldest son is Lord Coleridge, now Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, who was born in 1821, and was successively scholar of Balliol College and Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, M.P. for Exeter, and Solicitor and Attorney-General. His other daughter lived with him till his death, and is unmarried.

The late judge's handsome and intelligent face, his kind, graceful, and even courtly manners, and his friendly demeanour in private life, will not speedily fade from the memory of a large circle of attached friends. He died very quietly, 11th February, 1876, sinking from weakness, but retained consciousness almost to the last.