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An Episode in the Life of Lord Eldon

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     The romantic story of the love-making, elopement, and marriage of  'Jack' Scott-as he was familiarly called (afterwards Lord Eldon)-with the pretty Tyneside lassie, bliss Bessie Surtees, of Newcastle, is one that has been told over and over again in many different shapes and forms; but it is one, nevertheless, which will bear re-telling once more. It was, no doubt, this marriage that proved the turning point in Mr. Scott's life, and the means which ultimately led to his successful career as a lawyer.
     The third and youngest son of a Mr. William Scott, a 'hoastman,' or coal-fitter, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and of Jane, his wife, daughter of a Mr. Henry Atkinson, of that town, John Scott first saw the light on the 4th of June, 1751, which, being the birthday of his old master and kind friend, King George III., his majesty was wont to say, `Do not speak to me, Lord Eldon, till I have paid my respects to you on your birthday.' The King is reported to have been somewhat in a fix when asked to give the royal assent to the bill for the better regulation of the marriage laws, seeing that the two Principal subjects in the realm-the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Manners-Sutton) and Lord Chancellor Eldon--had both called runaway matches.
    John Scott was brother of another eminent and talented man, and one who held a high place in the legal world-Sir William Scott, afterwards Lord Stowell. Young Scott received his early education at the grammar school of his native town, and at the age of fifteen he was sent to the university of Oxford, where 'he soon discovered his talents and acquirements. He matriculated and was admitted a Commoner of University College, under the tuition of his brother William, then an eminent Scholar of that society. It is asserted that Mr. Scott's original destination was the Church, and his prospects in that profession were sufficiently encouraging.  He was already a Fellow of a college in high repute-had distinguished himself by the acquisition of a public prize, and was well-known to be a person of sound attainments and close application to study-when a circumstance occurred which at once destroyed every prospect of preferment from his college, and even rendered it doubtful by what means he was to procure a maintenance. This was Mr. Scott's marriage with Miss Elizabeth Surtees, as above mentioned.
     There can be no question that he was ardently attached to the young lady, and that to her he resolved to unite himself in defiance certainly of the advice of his friends, and to all appearance of common prudence. The lady was the eldest daughter of Mr. Aubone Surtees, a wealthy banker, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and the marriage took place at Blackshields, North Britain, on the 19th of  November, 1772.  It is needless to tell in detail how the comely Oxford scholar danced with the banker's daughter at the Newcastle assemblies; how his suit was at first disapproved by the girl's parents, for the Scotts were but well-to-do ‘coal-fitters; whereas Aubone Surtees, Esq., 'was a banker` and a gentleman of honorable descent;' how, on the appearance of an aged and patrician suitor for Bessie's hand, papa and mamma told the amorous John Scott not to presume on their condescension, and would force Bessie to throw her lover over and become the lady of Sir William Blackett; how Bessie was faithful and John was urgent; how they bad secret interviews on Tyneside and in London, meeting clandestinely on horseback and on foot, corresponding privately by letters and confidential messengers; how eventually the lovers, to the consternation of `good society' in Newcastle, were made husband and wife. The window from which Bessie descended into her lover's arms is to this day pointed out to every visitor to Newcastle as he pauses before the old house in Sandhill, not five hundred yards from the great suspension bridge which spans the Tyne,--the house which was once the home of the wealthy banker, her father.
     On the very morning John Scott set off to be married, his brother William accidentally called upon an old friend of his at the university, when the following dialogue occurred:
     `I suppose, Mr. ----,' said William Scott, ‘that you have heard of this very foolish act of my very foolish brother?'
     Mr. --- answered that he certainly had, and added, ` But I hope that it will turn out better than you anticipate.'
     `Never, sir,' replied Mr. Scott; `he is completely ruined. Nor can anything now save him from beggary. You do not know,' he added, `how very unhappy this makes me, for I had good hopes of him till this last confounded step, which has destroyed all.'
     John Scott had at that time a very narrow escape from becoming a grocer. Whilst he was stopping, after his marriage, for a few days at Newcastle, a very honest and wealthy inhabitant, a grocer, who had long known young Scott's father, and been intimate with the family, called upon him, and, after saying that he feared old Mr. Suttees would never forgive his daughter or himself, and lie was sure would give him nothing, proposed, as he had himself no children, and, moreover, had a great regard for Mr. Scott, that he should join him in the business. Mr. Scott did not altogether decline the offer, but said that his final determination must depend upon a letter which he expected to receive the next day from Oxford, for that he had written to his brother, who was some six years his senior, and should be guided in his future plans by the answer he might receive. That answer was a very kind one, and determined the question that he was not to be a grocer. He returned immediately to Oxford.
     After some deliberation, it was resolved that be should be called to the Bar, and, taking lodgings in the university, he applied himself so unremittingly to the study necessary for that profession, that great fears were entertained by his medical friend and adviser of his undermining his constitution-so much, indeed, was he alarmed that he thought it right to remonstrate with his patient, and to urge him to less mental exertion and fatigue. ' It is no matter, Mr. ---,' said Mr. Scott;  ‘I must either do as I am now doing or starve.’
     Mr. Scott was duly admitted a member of the Middle Temple in January, 1773. With the exception of I keeping term,' he resided, however, with his charming young wife in or near Oxford-for some time in lodgings, afterwards at the Parsonage House at Woodeaton, and subsequently at the principal's lodgings in New Inn Hall, of which society he became vice-principal. His vacations were spent at the house of his friend, Mr. Lane, at Mill-end, near Henley-on-Thames. During this time, in order to increase his income, he took a part in the tuition of University College in conjunction with his brother and Mr. Fisher, afterwards Master of the Charterhouse. He also read lectures as the deputy of Sir Robert Chambers, the Vinerian Professor of Common Law. This was from 1774 to 1776; on the 9th of November of the latter year he was called to the Bar, and soon after quitted Oxford for the metropolis.
     He gave his attention principally to convincing and the practice of the Courts of Equity; but, after some years of laborious study, his prospects were so discouraging, that he resolved to quit London and practice as a provincial counsel in his native town. It was, however, ordained otherwise. In the spring of 1781, in consequence of the occupations of Mr. Cowper not permitting him to attend as leading counsel in the case of the Clitheroe Election Petition, for which he was retained, the solicitor for the petition resolved to entrust the conduct of the cause to Mr. Scott, who then lived in a small house in Carey Street. After he had retired to bed, he was awakened by the offer of the brief in the matter, which was to be argued the neat morning before a committee of the House of Commons. Mr. Scott, after some deliberation, said, 'It is at this short notice impossible for me to argue the case; but if you will be content with my stating the facts to the committee, and they will grant me a short indulgence, I will endeavor to make myself master of the law, and will do my best' With this condition the solicitor was satisfied.
     Mr. Scott was ready before the morning with a knowledge of the facts, and appeared before the committee. Having stated his case at some length, and with great perspicuity, he explained the situation in which he was placed, and his unavoidable inability to do any justice to the merits. ' I hope,' he added, ' that I am not improperly trespassing, by venturing to solicit a few hours' indulgence.' It was instantly granted. The ability which be manifested was soon circulated through the profession, with the report that he had resolved to leave London. Mr. Mansfield and Mr. Wilson, two of the most eminent counsels, conjured him not to quit Westminster Hall. They assured him that his success was certain;  and Mr. Wilson added that the want of money ought not to deter him, for the assistance of many was ready to be proffered, and that he had the small sum of five hundred pounds which he was desirous to invest on this certain security. This kind offer, which was made on Mr. Scott's return from the committee-room to his house, he was not under the necessity to accept, as from that period all his wants were supplied, and more than supplied,, by his own exertions. In due course, he became the leader on the northern circuit.
     The following version of Lord Eldon's successful start as a barrister is related by Mr. George Farren, the author of the 'Handbook for Judes;' it is told from his lordship's own words
     'A few months since I was sitting with the Earl, during an occasional illness which prevented him going downstairs, and, on my asking his opinion on the expediency of a young barrister's taking a circuit, he related to me some of the early incidents of his own professional course. The following he related with great satisfaction, and in nearly these terms: “Having gone several circuits without business, either in town or country, I had taken rooms at Newcastle with the intention of seeking practice as a local barrister, when, passing one day from a committee-room of the House of Commons into Westminster Hall, I was accosted by Mr. Mansfield, then a leader in the courts, who said, ‘Mr. Scott, I am told you are about to quit us in disgust. Let me advise you not to be too hasty. Try London for another year: I felt flattered by this advice, which was immediately after repeated by another leader, with whom I spoke in the Hall. In deference to their opinions, I gave up my own. In the course of the nest year I had plenty of business; but the great source of gratification to me was that I afterwards, in character of Lord High Chancellor, made that same Mr. Mansfield Chief Justice of the Common Pleas."'
     Mr. Scott's rise in his profession was now a rapid one. His abilities were soon understood and appreciated by the great Lord Thurlow, who would have bestowed upon him a Mastership in Chancery, but that Mr. Scott declined it. In 1783, a patent of precedence was granted to him by Lord Loughborough, then First Commissioner of the Great Seal; and in the same year Mr. Scott was introduced into Parliament, upon Lord Weymouth's interest, as member for, the borough of Weobly, which he continued to represent until 1706. In 1788, Mr. Scott was appointed Solicitor-General, and received the honor of knighthood. His progress towards the highest honors was certain, but gradual. In February, 1793, he was made Attorney-General, which office he held for six years. One of the most important cases in which lie was called upon to act during that period was the trial of Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke, and others, for high treason.
     In 1796, Sir John Scott was elected as mom her for Boroughbridge, as the colleague of Sir Francis Burdett. On the death of Sir James Eyre, he succeeded him as Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas; and on the 18th of July, 1799, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Eldon, of Eldon, in the county of Durham. But this was only a foretaste of the honors  which were in store for him; and, accordingly, in 1801, he took his seat on the Woolsack in the House of Peers as Lord High Chancellor of England. In the same year ho was nominated High Steward of the University of Oxford by the Duke of Portland, then Chancellor of the University--a nomination which was ratified by the unanimous vote of Convocation, by which the degree of D.C.L., by diploma, was immediately after conferred upon him. In February, 1806, Lord Eldon resigned the Great Seal; but he was reappointed in April, 1807, from which date he continued in office unti11827, being altogether a period of nearly twenty-five years.
     'In personal appearance,' observes the writer of an obituary notice of his lordship in the Gentleman's Magazine, `Lord Eldon was everything that might  be expected in a supreme judge: the deep thought betrayed in his furrowed brow, the huge eyebrows, overhanging eyes that seemed to regard more what was taking place within than around them-his sternness, dignity, and venerable age, all tended to inspire respect. His voice was very remarkable. It was so weak that to persons unaccustomed to hear him in his court he seemed rather to whisper than to speak; but his utterance was extremely distinct, and his clear, soft, low tones were singularly forcible and impressive.'
     With regard to his personal temperament, Lord Brougham said of him in the House of Commons in 1818, 'Amore kindly disposed judge to all the professional men who practice in his court never perhaps existed.' Many- are the anecdotes told of his lordship which go to prove this assertion. Among others, Mr. George Farren tells the following: It was at Encumber, and he (Lord Eldon) was dressed in his shooting-jacket and gaiters. 'One day,' said lie, 'as I was with my dog and gun on my grounds, dressed as you see me now, I beard two reports in an adjoining piece, and saw what appeared to be, as in fact they afterwards proved to be, two gentlemen. I accosted then, with, “Gentlemen, I apprehend you have not Lord Eldon's permission to shoot on his grounds," to which one of them replied, " Oh, permission is not necessary in our case."  “May I venture to ask why, gentlemen?" said I. "Because we flushed our birds on other ground, and the law entitles us to follow our game anywhere; if you ask your master, Lord Eldon, he'll tell you that is the law;" whereupon I said, 'I don't think it will be necessary to trouble him on that account, since, to tell you the truth, I am Lord Eldon myself." They instantly sought to apologize; but I added, "Come, gentlemen, our meeting has began in good humor, and so let it end, pursue your day's pleasure on my grounds, only next time don't be quite so positive in your late:"'
     His lordship lived to the good old age of eighty-six, dying at his house in Hamilton Place, on the 13th of January, 1838. Whatever the Struggles of his early married life may have been, his home was rendered cheerful and happy by the pretty wife who, in spite of paternal threats and scolding's, had braved everything for his sake, and had been rewarded by seeing him seated on the woolsack. He had in after life to regret her peculiarities, her stinginess, and her nervous repugnance to society; but he remained devoted in his attachment till the band of death tore her from him on the 28th of June, 1831. She had borne him two sons and two daughters. `Poor Bessie!' he said, in his old age, after she was dead; ' if ever there was an angel on earth, she was one. The only reparation which one man can make another for running away with his daughter, is to be good in his conduct towards her; and this, I think, I have been.’

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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