The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Chitty JW

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Chitty, Joseph William[edit | edit source]

“The Umpire” (Spy), March 28, 1885[edit | edit source]

Ever since these isles were peopled, some Chitty or other has been always writing or editing books about English Law. The present Judge of this distinguished name is not the offspring of Chitty’s Statutes or of Chitty on Contracts, but of Chitty’s Archbold -- that is to say, he is second son of the late Mr. Thomas Chitty, who was a very eminent and popular Special Pleader in his day.

Born seven-and-fifty years ago, young Joseph William was sent to Eton to do sums and learn his Latin grammar; and then, having proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, by the aid of diligence and good ability he took a First Class in Classics in 1851, afterwards being elected a Fellow of Exeter, and becoming Vinerian Scholar in 1852. Of course he next went in for Law; in 1856 was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn (of which he was made a Bencher nineteen years later), took silk in 1874, grew to be the Leader in the Rolls Court, and carried on an enormous practice. Strange to say, he omitted to pose as a legal author. Presently he drifted into politics, and in 1880 he sat as a liberal M.P. for corrupt Oxford, in which posture he might possibly have remained, had he not, in September, 1881, been appointed a Judge of the Chancery Division in the room of Sir George Jessel, who was moved on to the Court of Appeal.

Like his father, Sir Joseph has always been a favourite with his fellow-men; and, being of a robust frame, he from time to time distinguished himself in various athletic exercises. He rowed for his University, he took much interest in the Inns of Court Volunteers (of which he was a Major), and for many years he officiated as the Umpire at the Oxford and Cambridge Boat-Race. When raised to the dignity of the Bench, however, he put away umpiring and lawn-tennis and similar childish things. In Court he is agreeable, although his voice is very penetrating; but business progresses rather slowly there -- they say because he wants to talk quite as much as the Counsel appearing before him; wherefore they irreverently call him “Mr. Justice Chatty.” The son of a lawyer, he married the daughter of a Judge.

Joseph William Chitty (1828-99) followed J.J. Hornby two years closely behind: a cricketer at Eton, then a rower (and cricketer) for Oxford at Balliol College. He won the University Pairs in 1849-50 and the University Fours in 1850, rowed in the Boat Race in 1849 (both times) and 1852 and for O.U.B.C. in the Grand in 1850-51, there being no Easter Boat Race those years. He also rowed for Balliol in the Goblets 1849-51 (with Hornby in 1850). He was president of the O.U.B.C. for six months before the 1852 Boat Race, and umpired the event for 1857-73 and 1875-81, chairing the 1881 Boat Race jubilee dinner.

On stroking Oxford to victory in 1852 he cemented the term “Chitty’s crew” as the acme of rowing perfection (at least for clinker-built boats, and perhaps for some time after as well), which W.B. Woodgate recalled in his memoirs:

I once saw, as a child, the great Joe Chitty row -- in a four (in practice for Henley, 1854). He used when racing to row a terrific pace of stroke; so did his contemporary and fellow blue, R. Greenall, stroke of Brasenose. Fifty-two to the minute was debited to them in the year of that date (1852)! I fancy that the oars of the brief period of keeled outrigged racing eights were shorter than those of the epochs preceding and succeeding -- of “tub” and “keelless” respectively. Those 66 feet long “parallelogram” eights had less “beam” than the Matt Taylor build which displaced them after 1856, and reduced in-board leverage tended to diminish proportions out-board. Hence the pace of strokes in those times.[1]

Chitty became a lord justice of appeal in 1897 but died of influenza February 15, 1899, a month before Cambridge ended Oxford’s nine-year run in the Boat Race. To him is credited the legal epigram: “Truth will sometimes leak out even through an affidavit.”

The Four Secrets of Chitty’s Success[edit | edit source]

In 1886, “Davus” surveyed twenty-two “Judges of England” for Vanity Fair, including three rowers: William Baliol Brett (then Baron Esher, Master of the Rolls), George Denman, and, reprinted here, Sir Joseph Chitty (July 10, 1886):

This Judge comes of a book-making family, but, deserting precedent, he has not given his own name to any legal work. Possibly this is well for his reputation, for the Honourable Sir Joseph is not a very great lawyer, and he often makes mistakes. The son of Mr. Thomas Chitty of the Inner Temple, he was, as a matter of course, sent to the Bar. There were no examinations in those days, for competition, in the modern sense, was almost unknown; and Master Joseph kept his terms, and was duly “called” in 1856, at the rather advanced age of twenty-eight. Since then he has got on well; but the fact that his much more able father, who was a very eminent lawyer and a very popular man, attained no higher position in his profession than that of a Special Pleader, while his less able son, in an age of infinitely keener competition, has been able to rise to the Bench, would seem to show that the latter has, to some extent, to thank friendly influence for the proud position he now occupies. Not that Mr. Justice Chitty is wanting in brains. His education at Eton and Balliol sufficed to get him a first class in classics at Oxford, which is quite equivalent to a second class in these later times, and which is a certificate of a fair amount of scholarship. But he has given little proof of the family intellect beyond this, though on the river and in the cricket-field he has shown himself a robust athlete.

A man who has rowed in four University races may be said to have given the highest proof of what the Americans call “co-ordinated musculature”; and were that a qualification for the seat of judgment, Mr. Justice Chitty would not be easily surpassed as a Judge. But that is not the case, and it may fairly be said that Sir Joseph is a better judge of a boat-race than of an intricate law case, just as he is far more highly appreciated in the first-named capacity than he is in the second.

But it would be unfair to attribute all Mr. Justice Chitty’s success in life to external pushing. A great deal of it is, no doubt; but not all. Four things combined to help Sir Joseph along the path to fame and the Bench, and one of these is not external to himself. Let us take this last first. Mr. Chitty entered upon his career with a name which in itself must have been an income to any owner who was not quite a stupid man. Such a name would probably always ensure a fair start. Every barrister knows that an honoured legal name is admired of solicitors. There is at the Bar a young man who has not yet (or till recently had not) opened his mouth in a Court of Law, except perhaps to say a few formal words. His professional income since his call -- only a very few years ago -- has averaged one thousand pounds. He is the son of a very eminent legal authority, and his name is his fortune. Probably Sir Joseph’s name was not worth so much as this to him, but it gave him a great advantage over his compeers.

Next, Sir Joseph had a legal birthright from his father, the Special Pleader, which was not to be despised. A barrister in good practice can put work in the way of another in hundred different ways. He generally does so if that other is his son.

Thirdly, Mr. Chitty married well. It is a great thing for a barrister to be a Judge’s son. The next best thing is to be a Judge’s son-in-law. Mr. Chitty became one in good time. Four years after his call to the Bar, just at the beginning of his career, he married a daughter of the late Lord Chief Baron Pollock, and he is probably one of that all too small number of men who after nearly thirty years of married life, have never regretted the step. It is of course impossible to estimate the exact influence exerted upon his life by any man’s marriage; but it should never be forgotten how much the late Lord Beaconsfield used to attribute to a woman’s work on behalf of the man in whose career she was interested.

Lastly, Mr. Chitty was ever aided by his powers of ingratiating himself. Three such guides to the Bench must of course be effective of much; and in the case of a man like Mr. Chitty, who always knew how to ingratiate himself, their assistance was probably even greater than might have been expected. Here is the great secret of Mr. Justice Chitty’s success. He has always known how to make himself popular. As an Eton “wet-bob” he was popular amongst his fellows; at Oxford, where athletic prominence is always more or less productive of hero-worship, he made many friends; and, later, in keeping up his connection with things athletic, he acted with wisdom. At the Bar he still retained his popularity, and he is now, as a man, thoroughly popular alike with the profession and the public. All his life, moreover, he has been eminently a social man. He knew how valuable was social influence, and, what is more, he knew how to excite the interest of others in himself.

Mr. Joseph Chitty did not take “silk” until after twenty years’ practice as a “stuff” gownsman. When he did take it, his already large practice increased. He became the leader in the Rolls Court presided over by the late Sir George Jessel, between whom and Mr. Chitty there existed a sincere friendship; and there every day he used to take his seat before a huge pile of briefs, which he proceeded to discuss with what outsiders called real ability, and really not without intelligence. He was a poor advocate. In a Common Law Court he would have been an inferior counsel; but he could state a case well enough, and little else was necessary in Sir George Jessel’s Court. That consummate Judge only wanted the points of a case to be laid before him. He would then pronounce an impromptu judgment as aptly worded as it was conclusive.

After five years of this work, Mr. Chitty went into Parliament. He chose Oxford for his constituency, where his name was remembered. In the Corn Exchange he was greeted with shouts of “Well rowed, Chitty.” He made a few second-rate harangues, and was returned. A year later he was made a Judge, his brief Parliamentary career being unrelieved by any attempt at oratorical or other brilliance. But he had served his Party.

As a Judge there is nothing brilliant about Mr. Justice Chitty. Irreverent juniors sometimes go so far as to speak of him as “an old woman.” They would not do this if he commanded all the respect that is due to a Judge of the High Court. Sir Joseph has the reputation of being a hard worker, and doubtless he has worked hard enough in his time. Now however, in his judicial capacity, all that is changed, and although he does not shirk work, and sits longer than some other Judges, yet his Court is not famous for the speed of its business. Sir Joseph is a good-humoured Judge, and on very friendly terms with some of his old colleagues who practise before him. So there is a great deal of unnecessary talking done in his Court, which is certainly not so much the fault of the eminent counsel referred to, whose time is money, as of the Judge, whose income is fixed. It has been said of Sir Joseph that he wants to do all the talking, and that counsel are a superfluity in his Court. But this is not so; for, being a weak Judge, he is always open to argument, and before no other Judge are plausible arguments so useful. Still, his nickname of “Mr. Justice Chatty” has been well earned. Hardly ever is a counsel allowed to speak before him for two minutes altogether uninterrupted by some question, which, however relevant it may be, puts the speaker out and is wasteful of time. A good counsel can always state his case better by himself, if allowed a fair hearing. With Messrs. Romer, Ince, and MacNaghten, Mr. Justice Chitty forms quite a little family party, and it is quite refreshing to hear one or more of this trio offering suggestions to the Judge as to how he should proceed in cases in which they are not retained at all. This is commonly done in Sir Joseph’s Court, and, however valuable to his Lordship such assistance may be, it does not add to his judicial dignity. It will be gathered that it is quite possible for a clever counsel to turn this Judge round to his way of thinking, even when he has mentally decided (rightly) to give judgment against him. So there are many appeals against Mr. Justice Chitty’s decisions. In his favour however it may be said that Sir Joseph has a powerful voice, which is by no means an unmixed curse. He can always be heard. Some Judges cannot.

I have said that Mr. Justice Chitty is very popular, and I have given reasons for the fact. But there is one strong reason as yet unnoticed. When a counsel wins a case, he often gets judgment without costs, these being in the discretion of the presiding Judge. But this particular Judge does not exercise this discretion. He always allows everybody the fullest possible costs. Counsel and solicitors like this. It does not add much sorrow to the defeat, but it does add great joy to the victory. Everyone likes to get his costs. This is rather cheaply earned popularity, but it is not clear that his Lordship is so mild in the matter of costs merely for the sake of gratifying litigants. He may have other reasons; but the fact remains as I have stated.

Quite recently, Mr. Justice Chitty has eclipsed the record in the matter of judicial jokes. Some plaster fell from the ceiling of the Court in which his Lordship was sitting, whereupon, without looking up, he remarked,Fiat Justitia, ruat caelum.” This was apt. It was a great opportunity, it is true, but credit is due his Lordship for his promptness in seizing it. A good judicial joke is pardonable; but there are so very few of them. Mr. Justice Chitty always wears two wigs in Court, which must be rather trying in the present hot weather. I have heard it stated that he was born without hair or teeth, as to the latter part of which statement I believe it may be relied upon. He certainly wears false hair and false teeth now, and has done so all the years I have known him. He is said never to have possessed any of his own on or in his head; but this is a secret.

If Mr. Justice Chitty’s decisions were a good deal sounder, and if they were arrived at with considerably more speed, Sir Joseph might be a good Judge. In other words, without committing any startling improprieties, he is commonplace in his rank. But his faults are negative faults. He is a very respectable man of moderate legal attainments. Davus

References[edit | edit source]

  1. ^ W.B. Woodgate, Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman, p. 369. Woodgate probably did not see Chitty in practice for the 1854 Henley regatta, but rather for some earlier year, as Chitty did not row there after 1853.