The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Macnaghten E
“He Succeeded Lord Blackburn” (Spy), October 31, 1895
He is Edward Macnaghten of Runkerry, in County Antrim; and he traces back his lineage to one of the three clans that were descended from the old Maomors of Moray, who were Sovereigns among the Picts. In the twelfth century these Macnaghtens became the Thanes of Loch Tay; and in the sixteenth century, one of them, “Shane Dhu,” having gone to Ireland as Secretary of the first Earl of Antrim, they settled there. This particular Macnaghten (who is brother of Sir Francis Macnaghten, Bart.) was born five-and-sixty years ago; and, preferring Trinity, Cambridge, before Trinity, Dublin, came to England and was made a graduate and a Fellow of that foundation; since which time he has found life in England profitable. He got called to the Bar, and married the daughter of the late Baron Martin; took silk and went into Parliament for his own County (Antrim); changed his seat on redistribution for North Antrim; and sat for that Division until eight years ago, when he succeeded Lord Blackburn as a life Peer and a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary.
He is one of those happy men who have never had to work hard; and his face shows it. At Cambridge he rowed in the Eight; and as a silk he practised before Mr. Justice Chitty, who had rowed in the Oxford Eight. He has always been well off, and he became the husband of the Judge’s daughter. Nevertheless he is a sound lawyer who has been heard to attribute his success at the Bar to the glassy eye of the old frequenter of the Court, which fixed itself upon him when he first rose, and put him on his mettle. Though he had a perfectly safe seat, it seemed ridiculous that he should be created a Law Lord when he had never been on the Bench, upon which was sitting such a man as the late Lord Bowen, who ought to have gone up before him; nevertheless his elevation was no job, but quite an unexceptionable appointment; and he has not discredited his high office.
He is a good, cheerful fellow, an excellent host, and a kindly-hearted man.
Edward Macnaghten (1830-1913) arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1850 from three years at Trinity College, Dublin, and promptly made his mark in both rowing and sculling. He won the Colquhoun Sculls, University Pairs, and Visitors’ Challenge Cup in 1851, the Diamonds in 1852, the Ladies’ in 1853-54, and the Grand in 1854, all under the colors of First Trinity or the C.U.B.C. “[T]he ovation which he received from Oxford and Cambridge alike” for winning the Diamonds “was said to be sui generis.” A lightweight, he stroked Cambridge at 10 stone 6 lbs. against Oxford in the 1853 Grand, there being no Easter Boat Race that year. The Henley course then in use had a bend, and Cambridge on the outside were unable to push their lead at the Point enough to take Oxford’s water, who at the corner pushed back to win by eighteen inches. Macnaghten’s rowing contemporaries said he “was the most tearing and staying man of his weight, and that a crew of twelve-stone Macnaghtens could have ‘licked creation.’” He later coached Cambridge on several occasions.
Macnaghten reportedly “[took] to the law rather because he could find nothing else to do than for any other reason,” but became an engaged and gifted practitioner. In the House of Commons he focused on legal and Irish subjects, although it does not appear he was among the Irish members who especially vexed Speaker Peel. His 1886 speech on the pending home rule bill “long and excellent, abounding in happy quotations and equally happy sarcasms.” Still, given his Irish antecedents and sympathies on the one hand, and his demonstrated legal talent on the other, perhaps his elevation to the bench was the prudent course for the Government. In any case the appointment proved no mistake, for
he possessed in happy combination the gifts of listening with patience and deciding without doubt, after bringing to bear his great range of unobtruded learning and a clear practical appreciation of business and character. Others in his time were as erudite and his equals in acumen, but it was remarkable that both bench and bar fell into the way of citing a sentence or two of Macnaghten and accepting it without discussion as an authoritative statement of the law.
He chaired the Council of Legal Education from 1895 until his death in 1913.
As an ex-Blue and accomplished jurist, perhaps Macnaghten was the sort of “luminary imbued with sporting principles” that Woodgate found in one Judge McConnell, K.C., chairman of the North London Sessions:
Once I was instructed in some petty prosecution before him. It seemed likely to come on that day. An inspector of police, who knew that I had been guilty of the river in my youth, approached me and sounded me whether it would be possible to let the case stand over to the morrow; because a young policeman engaged in it was stroking a police four, and the police regatta was going on that day at Hammersmith. I at once entered McConnell’s Court, and made application for adjournment, boldly telling the true reason for the request. McConnell at once said: “Any application from you on an aquatic matter has every claim on the Bench” -- and at once made the order.
Off went the young stroke, as happy as a sandboy. Next day, when I attended for the trial we heard that he had won two races, thanks to McConnell’s sporting good-fellowship.
Another time, on the morning of a Tuesday of a Henley regatta, I put in an appearance in McConnell’s Court, hoping to finish what I had in hand before lunch, and to catch a train to the river. To save time in changing clothes I had donned a Leander Club dark serge coat and waistcoat, with the club gilt buttons, thinking it would pass muster sufficiently under the folds of a gown.
McConnell divined the costume and situation as he nodded to me from the Bench. He dropped a pencil line by an usher: “Dear W., your attire is more aquatic than forensic: you had better catch the first train for Henley. I will see that your interests are duly looked after here!”