George Jessel (jurist)
George Jessel was educated at a school for Jews at Kew, and being prevented by then existing religious disabilities from proceeding to the University of Oxford or Cambridge, went to University College London. He entered as a student at Lincoln's Inn in 1842, and a year later took his B.A. degree at the University of London, becoming M.A. and gold medallist in mathematics and natural philosophy in 1844. In 1846 he became a fellow of University College, and in 1847 he was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn.
His earnings during his first three years at the bar were 52, 346, and 795 guineas, from which it will be seen that his rise to a tolerably large practice was rapid. His work, however, was mainly conveyancing, and for long his income remained almost stationary. By degrees, however, he got more work, and was called within the bar in 1865, becoming a bencher of his Inn in the same year and practising in the Rolls Court. Jessel entered parliament as Liberal member for Dover in 1868, and although neither his intellect nor his oratory was of a class likely to commend itself to his fellow-members, he attracted Gladstone's attention by two learned speeches on the Bankruptcy Bill which was before the house in 1869, with the result that in 1871 he was appointed solicitor-general.
His reputation at this time stood high in the chancery courts; on the common law side he was unknown, and on the first occasion upon which he came into the court of Queens bench to move on behalf of the Crown, there was very nearly a collision between him and the bench. His forceful and direct method of bringing his arguments home to the bench was not modified in his subsequent practice before it. His great powers were fully recognized; his business in addition to that on behalf of the Crown became very large, and his income for three years before he was raised to the bench amounted to nearly 25,000 per annum. In 1873, Jessel succeeded Lord Romilly as Master of the Rolls. From 1873 to 1881, Jessel sat as a judge of first instance in the rolls court, being also a member of the court of appeal.
In November 1874 the first Judicature Act came into effect, and in 1881 the Judicature Act of that year made the Master of the Rolls the ordinary president of the first court of appeal, relieving him of his duties as a judge of first instance. In the court of appeal Jessel presided almost to the day of his death. For some time before 1883 he suffered from diabetes with chronic disorder of the heart and liver, but struggled against it; on March 16, 1883 he sat in court for the last time, and five days later he died at his residence in London, the immediate cause of death being cardiac syncope.
As a judge of first instance Jessel was a revelation to those accustomed to the proverbial slowness of the chancery courts and of the Master of the Rolls who preceded him. He disposed of the business before him with rapidity combined with correctness of judgment, and he not only had no arrears himself, but was frequently able to help other judges to clear their lists. His knowledge of law and equity was wide and accurate, and his memory for cases and command of the principles laid down in them extraordinary. In the rolls court he never reserved a judgment, not even in the Epping Forest case (Commissioners of Sewers v. Glasse, L.R. 19 Eq.; The Times, November 11, 1874), in which the evidence and arguments lasted twenty-two days (150 witnesses being examined in court, while the documents went back to the days of King John), and in the court of appeal he did so only twice, and then in deference to the wishes of his colleagues.
The second of these two occasions was the case of Robarts v. The Corporation of London (49 Law Times 455; The Times, March 10, 1883), and those who may read Jessels judgment should remember that, reviewing as it does the law and custom on the subject, and the records of the city with regard to the appointment of a remembrancer from the 16th century, together with the facts of the case before the court, it occupied nearly an hour to deliver, but was nevertheless delivered without notes this, too, on March 9, 1883, when the judge who uttered it was within a fortnight of his death. Never during the 19th century was the business of any court performed so rapidly, punctually, and satisfactorily as it was when Jessel presided.
He was Master of the Rolls at a momentous period of legal history. The Judicature Acts, completing the fusion of law and equity, were passed while he was judge of first instance, and were still new to the courts when he died. His knowledge and power of assimilating knowledge of all subjects, his mastery of every branch of law with which he had to concern himself, as well as of equity, together with his willingness to give effect to the new system, caused it to be said when he died that the success of the Judicature Acts would have been impossible without him. His faults as a judge lay in his disposition to be intolerant of those who, not able to follow the rapidity of his judgment, endeavoured to persist in argument after he had made up his mind; but though he was peremptory with the most eminent counsel, young men had no cause to complain of his treatment of them.
Jessel sat on the royal commission for the amendment of the Medical Acts, taking an active part in the preparation of its report. He actively interested himself in the management of London University, of which he was a fellow from 1861, and of which he was elected vice-chancellor in 1880. He was one of the commissioners of patents, and trustee of the British Museum. He was also chairman of the committee of judges which drafted the new rules rendered necessary by the Judicature Acts. He was treasurer of Lincoln's Inn in 1883, and vice-president of the council of legal education. He was also a fellow of the Royal Society.
Jessel's career marks an epoch on the bench, owing to the active part taken by him in rendering the Judicature Acts effective, and also because he was the last judge capable of sitting in the House of Commons, a privilege of which he did not avail himself. He was the first Jew who, as solicitor-general, took a share in the executive government of his country, the first Jew who was sworn a regular member of the privy council, and the first Jew who took a seat on the judicial bench of Great Britain; he was also, for many years after being called to the bar, so situated that any one might have driven him from it, because, being a Jew, he was not qualified to be a member of the bar.
In person Jessel was a stoutish, square-built man of middle height, with dark hair, somewhat heavy features, a fresh ruddy complexion, and a large mouth. He married in 1856 Amelia, daughter of Joseph Moses, who survived him together with three daughters and two sons, the elder of whom, Charles James (b. 1860), was made a baronet shortly after the death of his distinguished father and in recognition of his services.
See also: List of British Jews