English legal reformer
Born 1757 Died 1818
Sir Samuel Romilly, was the second son of Peter Romilly, a watchmaker and jeweller in London, whose father had emigrated from Montpellier after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, and who had married Margaret Garnault, a Huguenot refugee like himself, but of a far wealthier family. Samuel Romilly was born in Frith Street, Soho, on the 1st of March 1757. He served for a time in his father's shop; but his education was not neglected, and he became a good classical scholar and particularly conversant with French literature. A legacy of £2,000 from one of his mother's relations led to his being articled to a solicitor and clerk in chancery with the idea of qualifying himself to purchase the office of one of the six clerks in chancery. In 1778, however, he determined to go to the bar, and entered himself at Gray's Inn.
He went to Geneva in 1781, where he made the acquaintance of the chief democratic leaders, including Etienne Dumont. Called to the bar in 1783, he went the midland circuit, but was chiefly occupied with chancery practice. On the publication of Madan's Thoughts on Executive Justice, advocating the increase of capital punishments, he at once wrote and published in 1786 Observations on Madan's book. Of more general interest is his intimacy with the great Mirabeau, to whom he was introduced in 1784. Mirabeau saw him daily for a long time and introduced him to Lord Lansdowne, who highly appreciated him, and, when Mirabeau became a political leader, it was to Romilly that he applied for an account of the procedure used in the English House of Commons. He visited Paris in 1789, and studied the course of the Revolution there; and in 1790 he published his Thoughts on the Probable Influence of the Late Revolution in France upon Great Britain, a work of great power.
His practice at the chancery bar continued largely to increase, and in 1800 he was made a K.C. In 1798 he married Anne, daughter of Francis Garbett of Knill Court, Herefordshire; and in 1805 he was appointed chancellor of the county palatine of Durham. His great abilities were thoroughly recognized by the Whig party, to which he attached himself; and in 1806, on the accession of the Ministry of All the Talents to office, he was offered the post of solicitor-general, although he had never sat in the House of Commons. He accepted the office, and was knighted and brought into parliament for Queenborough. He went out of office with the government, but remained in the House of Commons, sitting successively for Horsham, Wareham and Arundel.
It was now that Sir Samuel Romilly commenced the greatest labour of his life, his attempt to reform the criminal law of England, then at once cruel and illogical. By statute law innumerable offences were punished by death, but, as such wholesale executions would be impossible, the larger number of those convicted and sentenced to death at every assizes were respited, after having heard the sentence of death solemnly passed upon them. This led to many acts of injustice, as the lives of the convicts depended on the caprice of the judges, while at the same time it made the whole system of punishments and of the criminal law ridiculous. Romilly saw this, and in 1808 he managed to repeal the Elizabethan statute which made it a capital offence to steal from the person. This success, however, raised opposition, and in the following year three bills repealing equally sanguinary statutes were thrown out by the House of Lords under the influence of Lord Ellenborough. Year after year the same influence prevailed, and Romilly saw his bills rejected; but his patient efforts and his eloquence ensured victory eventually for his cause by opening the eyes of Englishmen to the barbarity of their criminal law. The only success he had was in securing the repeal, in 1812, of a statute of Elizabeth making it a capital offence for a soldier or a mariner to beg without a pass from a magistrate or his commanding officer.
Sir Samuel Romilly's efforts made his name famous not only in England but all over Europe, and in 1818 he had the honour of being returned at the head of the poll for the city of Westminster. He did not long survive his triumph. On the 29th of October 1818 Lady Romilly died in the Isle of Wight. Her husband's grief was intense, and he committed suicide in a fit of temporary insanity on the 2nd of November. No man of his time was more loved than Sir Samuel Romilly; his singularly sweet nature, his upright manliness, his eloquence and his great efforts on behalf of humanity secured him permanent fame.
See the Memoirs of the Life of Sir Samuel Romilly written by himself, with a selection from his Correspondence, edited by his Sons (3 vols., 1840); The Speeches of Sir Samuel Romilly in the House of Commons (2 vols., 1820); Life and Work of Sir Samuel Romilly, by Sir W. J. Collins, in Trans. of the Huguenot Society (1908).
Being the entry for ROMILLY, SIR SAMUEL in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.