Pollock Letters

Scope and Content

Letters from Sir Jonathan Frederick Pollock to William Sharpey, concerning Sharpey's recent illness and University of London matters. Plus a print biography of Pollock from an unidentified source.

Administrative / Biographical History

Pollock, Sir (Jonathan) Frederick, first baronet (1783-1870), judge, was born in the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 22 or 23 September 1783, the third son of David Pollock (1739-1815), saddler, of Charing Cross, and his wife, Sarah Homera or Homeria (d. 1817), daughter of Richard Parsons, comptroller-general of customs, ‘a lady of remarkable energy and forceful character’ (The Times, 24 Aug 1870). One brother, David Pollock (1780-1847), became chief justice of Bombay; another, George Pollock (1786-1872), ended life as a field marshal. Frederick (as he was always known) attended, and quitted in dissatisfaction, three suburban schools before entering St Paul's School in January 1800. At Trinity College, Cambridge, which he entered in 1802, he obtained a scholarship in 1804, but was nevertheless so poor that, but for the help of his tutor George Frederick Tavel, the ‘unlucky Tavel’ of Byron's ‘Hints from Horace’, he would have left the university without a degree. He graduated BA in 1806, being senior wrangler and first Smith's prizeman, was elected fellow of his college in 1807, and proceeded MA in 1809. He was commissary to the university from 1824 to 1835.

On 25 May 1813 Pollock married Frances, daughter of Francis Rivers of London; they had six sons and five daughters. She died on 27 Jan 1827, and on 7 Jan 1834 he married Sarah Anne Amowah (d. 1895), second daughter of Captain Richard Langslow, a neighbour at Hatton, Middlesex. They had two sons, including Sir William Frederick Pollock, and eight daughters; three other children died in infancy. Two of Pollock's daughters married judges (Sir Samuel Martin and Sir Joseph William Chitty); his son Charles Edward Pollock (1823-1897) became an exchequer baron, and among his many grandchildren were the jurist Sir Frederick Pollock and Ernest Murray Pollock, Viscount Hanworth, a master of the rolls.

Pollock entered the Middle Temple on 5 October 1802 and was called to the bar on 27 November 1807. Uniting a retentive memory, great natural acumen, and tact in the management of juries with a profound knowledge of the common law, Pollock rapidly acquired an extensive practice both at Westminster and on the northern circuit, which he went regularly from 1816, contending with Brougham and Scarlett. Though his eloquence matched neither Brougham's nor his own scholastic reputation and he was prosy and sometimes long-winded, it was noticed that ‘Brougham won glory, but Pollock won verdicts’ (Law Journal, 1870). His mastery of accounts and commercial practices brought him much bankruptcy business. Admitted ad eundem to the Inner Temple on 16 November 1824, and a bencher of his own inn from 22 November 1827, he took silk on 12 June 1827 and was added to the royal commission on the common-law courts on 10 March 1831.

In 1830 Pollock declined a judgeship in the common pleas and turned his attention to politics. On 2 May 1831 he became a tory member of parliament for Huntingdon, which he defended in 1832 and for which he was returned unopposed at four subsequent elections. He was also recorder of the borough from 1835 to 1844. He was knighted on 29 December 1834 on accepting the office of attorney-general in Sir Robert Peel's first administration, which terminated on 9 April 1835. Although an adequate debater, he was more successful in the courts than the Commons, excelling in his defence of Chartist insurrectionists (R. v. Frost, 1840) and in the interminable case of Wright v. Tatham (1830-1838) turning on the law of evidence. He resumed the same office in Peel's second administration from 6 September 1841, and made useful reforms to common-law procedure in the act (5 & 6 Vict. c. 97) to which his name was given. But his aspirations were judicial, not political, and he readily agreed to become lord chief baron of the exchequer in succession to Lord Abinger on 15 April 1844; he was made a serjeant on 18 April.

In the court of exchequer Pollock presided with distinction for nearly a quarter of a century. The court had recently been shorn of its equity jurisdiction but its new chief, with able puisnes in Alderson and Parke, raised its common-law reputation. Though he called him ‘the greatest legal pedant that I believe ever existed’, Pollock allowed Parke's acute but narrow and technical approach to colour the court's jurisprudence. His own approach was very different. He was not a great original judge, being more concerned to achieve substantive justice in the instant case than to knit the strands of common law into a coherent pattern, but he was eminently sound over every part of the law and his judgments gained weight from their ‘high moral tone’ (Solicitors' Journal, 1869-1870) and from his impressive personality. His minority view prevailed in the Lords in Egerton v. Brownlow (1853) and Couturier v. Hastie (1856) and the remoteness of damage test he favoured in Greenland v. Chaplin (1850) was eventually restored in The Wagon Mound (1961). The Lords did not, however, adopt his view of Rylands v. Fletcher (1866). In his prime his only shortcomings were a tendency to make up his mind early in a case and an apparent partiality to the arguments of his son-in-law Samuel Martin. The practice of the courts was drastically modified by the Common Law Procedure Acts of 1852 and 1854 and though naturally conservative he loyally accepted these reforms, and carried them into practical effect.

Pollock scarcely suffered a day's illness and remained indefatigable, if sometimes sleepy, on the bench. In later years, however, the barons were ‘an ill-assorted team’ (Solicitors' Journal, 1869-1870) with Bramwell dominant, and the court's reputation declined somewhat. On his retirement on 12 Jul 1866 Pollock received a baronetcy on 24 July. In the then rural surroundings of Hatton, Middlesex, he resumed the studies of his youth. To the Royal Society, of which he was elected a fellow in 1816, he communicated three mathematical papers, the last on the theory of numbers and Fermat's theorem. He was also FSA and FGS and a keen member of the council of the London Photographical Society.

Pollock died at Hatton on 23 August 1870. He was buried on 29 August in Kensington Hanwell cemetery.

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